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There Is Also an India in Which Comedians Are Shut Down...

Vir Das's 'two Indias' monologue in the US has landed him in the crosshairs of right-wing groups. They have succeeded in creating an atmosphere where organisers will hesitate in offering him a show.

Stand up comic Vir Das, who otherwise had held several shows in the last few years without any trouble or controversies, is now facing the same problems as his peers – his shows are being cancelled at the last moment. The reasons given by those who order these cancellations is also familiar – that the performances will hurt “religious sentiments.”

Das has not particularly been known for causing offence to any particular religious group, so why would he suddenly do so now?

Nonetheless, the charge has been made by a right-wing organisation, the Hindu Janajagruthi Vedike, in Bengaluru to the police. Clearly this body has enough clout to make the organisers of his show develop cold feet.

Immediately after, Das was invited to Kolkata by the ruling Trinamool Congress party – no doubt wanting to showcase its commitment to free speech – where he regaled a packed house. But then, Das’s show ran into trouble again, this time in Hyderabad. After complaints by Hindu Sanghathan Ekta Manch, the organisers decided to pull the show. 

Why is Das suddenly the target of ‘Hindu’ groups?

Their ire goes back to a hugely successful performance by him in the US where he spoke of ‘two Indias’,  listing the contradictions of what Indians say and what they do.

A sample: “I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarians and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.” Not particularly funny as jokes go, but it was sharp satire which seemed born out of angst. Another one pointed out the fact of India being a country of young people ruled by 75 year olds, which could be an indictment of the ruling party.

The particular line that angered these groups who are now after him was: “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night.” This, they claim, insults India and their anger is all the more because he said all this in a foreign country.

Now the logical mind would ask whether those living in the US or elsewhere would be reading such stories in their own media, more so in a globalised world, so what is new in what Das is telling them? But logic is obviously not a strong suit among these groups. They want him to apologise, an absurd demand because they have no locus standi to ask for any such thing.

And even if he does, will they stop? Hardly, because having tasted blood, they will become more brazen.

The dramatic rise in obscure and peripheral groups claiming not just to represent Hindus and their culture – defined in the narrowest of terms – is one significant feature of the last few years. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to power and its blatant support of Hindutva has encouraged the emergence of tiny outfits who have begun to throw their weight around. More often than not, the state machinery – the police, the local administration, even the state government – tacitly or openly back these outfits or individuals.

Munawar Farooqui was arrested and thrown into jail because Eklavya Gaur, the son of Malini Gaur, a BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh complained to the police that he was joking about Hindu deities. The police, which had no evidence against him, still went ahead and took Farooqui into custody and later said it was the comedian’s ‘intent’ to crack jokes against Hindu gods. During a bail hearing, the judge talked about how ‘such people must not be spared.’

The farce continued till the Supreme Court finally granted him bail, but not before he had spent a month or so in jail.

There is also a not-so-subtle conflation of the Hindu religion with the nation itself. This has been a long held mantra of the RSS, the ideological font of not just the BJP but also these freelance outfits that have mushroomed all over the country, which has always said that all Indians are fundamentally Hindus. Just this week, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, reiterated this view.

On the face of it, by saying that people are free to practice their own rituals and food habits, he sounds reasonable and accommodating, but it clearly undermines not just Muslims or Christians, but also millions of tribal people and members of smaller communities which follow their own religious beliefs which may not be ‘Hindu’ and certainly not in the manner in which Hindutva groups believe and propagate. They may not agree with him.

Yet, the various Vedikes and Manchs that have proliferated get the message and have taken it upon themselves to not just believe in it but also enforce it. Shutting down all those who ‘insult’ it is part of that enforcement.

Das’s jokes in his US tour talked about the vulnerability of women in a country that claimed to respect women – that was enough to provoke these outfits who saw it as an affront to the Bharatiya nari, the ideal Indian woman, which is very much part of the Hindutva mythology. Instead of thinking why women felt unsafe in India and even debating it with him, they chose to shut him down.

Reasonable argument lost, intolerance won.

Vir Das is now in their crosshairs and they have succeeded in creating an atmosphere where organisers will hesitate in offering him a show. The fear of goons disturbing the event will be very much present; the local administration is not expected to be very helpful, freedom of speech be damned.

This article was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.