Mocking Modi Can Have Consequences, as Many Comedians Have Discovered

Even a skit by children is not safe from the vigilantes who are always on the lookout for any mention of their beloved leader that is less than flattering.

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King Lear, otherwise someone who was intolerant of criticism, even from his daughter, allowed the Fool to say anything to him and get away with it. Presumably that allowed the King to get a reality check. But authoritarian leaders and dictators are not that welcoming of such candid criticism.

So no chance of that happening in India today. Our democratically elected though no less authoritarian leaders don’t want any Fool around them speaking home truths – they prefer sycophants and praise singers.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is notoriously prickly, though other state governments are no slouches at clamping down on anyone who tries to lampoon their great leaders. In West Bengal, sharing memes and cartoons about Mamata Banerjee can land you in jail, as a professor found out some years ago, and in Maharashtra, a young comedian was threatened with legal action against her by the government for allegedly making an ‘insulting’ comment against Chattrapati Shivaji, which she actually didn’t. Quite the contrast with Jawaharlal Nehru, who told cartoonist Shankar to continue making fun of him, or even the ‘authoritarian’ Indira Gandhi who asked R.K. Laxman for a sketch of her showing her exaggerated nose.

For the BJP though, anything that they see as criticism of their beloved leader Narendra Modi, must be stamped out at the earliest. Given that they are in power in Delhi and many other states, the party and its sister Hindutva groups use this clout freely.

The latest example is particularly egregious. In Tamil Nadu, the local unity of the BJP, hardly a powerful entity there, has objected to a children’s show on a local channel which they felt was making fun of Modi.

The two characters, one a king and the other a minister, both played by children, refer to a mythical king who swans around the world in colourful jackets but fails to enhance India’s economic growth. The biggest sin, from the BJP’s point of view, is that the skit ridicules demonetisation. The king character muses that it may be a good idea to demonetise currency because it would eradicate black money, upon which the minister reminds him of another king of ‘Sindhiya’ who did the same, “like a fool”.

No mention of Modi is made though the reference is clear, but what really irritated the BJP Tamil Nadu unit more is that the judges and audience watching the show burst into applause. The BJP immediately objected, saying it mocked the prime minister. Since when did that become a crime, we may ask? Well, he must be spoken of only in glowing terms and never criticised or made fun of.

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If this was a BJP-run state, the unit may have even got the channel head arrested and the kids questioned. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. A year ago, a performance by school children in Bidar, Karnataka, where they discussed the controversial Citizens’ (Amendment) Act, resulted in the police questioning the children; later, the high court pulled up the police for doing so in their uniforms with weapons at their side. The school was charged with what else but sedition, and the principal arrested. Karnataka is a BJP-ruled state and the party’s writ runs.

There is no dearth of examples of the BJP going after comedians. Munawar Faruqui was thrown into jail in Madhya Pradesh after a complaint by the son of a BJP leader about jokes the comedian did not even crack. Since then, Faruqui has found it difficult to perform anywhere – the party ensures that his shows are cancelled.

Kunal Kamra, who walked up to anchor Arnab Goswami on a flight and threw questions at him, was immediately put on a no-fly list by Indigo and other airlines, after minister Hardeep Puri reportedly ‘advised’ the airlines to ban him.

What is about comedy and satire that bothers the BJP so much? In that, it is no different from many authoritarian governments, democratically elected or otherwise, which bristle at ridicule. Pungent humour goes to places where mere criticism by journalists or opposition leaders doesn’t. The population at large immediately relates to it, because it is a form of catharsis, allowing them to release their own frustrations. They can participate in the act of registering their own protest by laughing along and with minimal fear of being arrested or harassed.

The objections of the BJP to a children’s play show that the satire hit home. Shutting down a play or jailing a comedian will certainly discourage others from making fun of the prime minister, whose fragile ego must be protected at all costs. Many comedians and satirists say that they take the safe way out and don’t mention Modi or Amit Shah. But more comedians will arise, more satire will be produced, more memes will do the rounds – how many will the BJP shut down or arrest?