DAKSHITA DUBEY analyses the recent rise in public intolerance, given the backdrop of the Vir Das controversy.
IN January 2013, while India was coping with the gruesome Nirbhaya gang rape, the first division of two India(s) (post 1947), was done by Mohan Bhagwat, the sixth Sarsanghchalak, or chief, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Bhagwat claimed that violence against women does not occur in Bharat, but it occurs frequently in India”. Bhagwat then went on to call marriage a “social contract” and defined the “standard” gender roles of the spouses, that is, the husband must protect the wife who has to take care of household chores only.
Bhagwat’s statements caused an uproar amongst the right-minded people of the society. However, Bhagwat did not have to face any official complaint, that is, in the form of a FIR. On the contrary, after this, RSS filed an FIR against nine media channels accusing them of reporting misinformation. Normally this would have been true, considering the state of the mainstream news media in India, which is willing to compromise on journalistic scruples for a spike in ratings. However, in Bhagwat’s case, it was not.
In this piece, I attempt to analyse why comedian Vir Das’s monologue at a comedy show in Washington, D.C., United States turns out to be true, while also establishing that artists are kept on a tighter leash than our political leaders when it comes to saying the right thing at the right place.
Tolerance in satire – What does the law state?
It is established that all citizens of India have the fundamental right to free speech and expression, subject to reasonable restrictions. The Supreme Court held in its judgment the case of S. Rangarajan Etc vs. P. Jagjivan Ram (1989) that “[o]pen criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”
Recently in the case of Ashutosh Dubey vs. Netflix, Inc & Ors. (2020), the Delhi High Court, while dealing with the “objectionable content” on a web series uttered by the protagonist character, who is a stand-up comic, held as follows:
“It is a known fact that a stand-up comedian to highlight a particular point exaggerates the same to an extent that it becomes a satire and a comedy. People do not view the comments or jokes made by stand-up comedians as statements of truth but take them with a pinch of salt with the understanding that it is an exaggeration for the purposes of exposing certain ills or shortcomings.”
The Court further elaborated:
“One of the satirical techniques to criticise a particular subject or character is to exaggerate it beyond normal bounds so that it becomes ridiculous and its faults can be seen. Satire is a work of art. It is a literary work that ridicules its subject through the use of techniques like exaggeration. It is a witty, ironic and often exaggerated portrayal of a subject.”
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In 2020, the Delhi High Court held in a judgment that “[p]eople do not view the comments or jokes made by stand-up comedians as statements of truth but take them with a pinch of salt with the understanding that it is an exaggeration for the purposes of exposing certain ills or shortcomings.”
It is imperative to note here that the courts giving such reasoned judgements helps in paving the way for a more tolerant society, considering that we live in the same society as actor Kangana Ranaut who looked at one snippet of the monologue and termed Das’s satire as “soft terrorism” . This, coming from the same person who applauded the horrific 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.
What Das expresses in the monologue is his opinion which he can share as he is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The only restrictions on the same can be imposed on the following grounds: security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement to an offence and sovereignty and integrity of India.
For security of the State to be in question, Das would be required to wage a war against the country, and not just an ideological war, but an actual one. India’s relationship with the United States cannot be overturned by the comments of one stand-up comedian, who as the profession suggests, gets paid to tell jokes. Public order connotes the sense of public peace, safety and tranquillity. Anything that disturbs public peace disturbs public order, but mere criticism of the government does not disturb the public order.
When it comes to decency and morality, it has been held in the case of S. Khushboo vs. Kanniammal (2010) that “[n]otions of social morality are inherently subjective and the criminal law cannot be used as a means to unduly interfere with the domain of personal autonomy”, which in the present case is Das’s use of the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. to perform his art. The monologue cannot fit under the ambit of defamation, as truth is an exception to the same, and the entire satire of Das is based on the true two faces of India.
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The restrictions under Article 19(2) do not apply to Das. The complaints that have been filed against him in Delhi and Mumbai so far fail to mention any legal ground on which action against Das should be taken.
Public intolerance – The other side of India
Das in his monologue is found stating that “I come from an India where our music is bahut hard, but our sentiments are bahut soft”. The recent rise in public intolerance – over Dabur’s queer-friendly Karwachauth advertisement, or the present case – has left the other side of India which Das talks about, become dominant.
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I want to term these people who pressurise organisations like Dabur, and Tanishq to withdraw their advertisements as “political bullies”. They do not act for moral or correct reasons, because if they did, the first person to be attacked would have been Ranaut, or the Bharatiya Janta Party leaders who gave an open threat to the anti-Citizenship (Amendment Act) protestors in early 2020. They do so to suit their own political ideology, and to create a majoritarian rule, which has no place for difference of opinion.
The restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution do not apply to Das. The complaints that have been filed against him in Delhi and Mumbai so far fail to mention any legal ground on which action against Das should be taken.
I must clarify, however, that I am not claiming that Das, or for that matter any comedian, who has caught the eye of these political bullies, is a saint. I understand, that there are several other problems that India is facing, the most inherent one being that of caste discrimination, that was left out of the monologue by Das. I am also not a fan of the questionable video clips that Das had made in the past.
However, this piece is not a statement of support for Das. Rather, it is a plea for introspection by the civil society. Cancelling comedians, asking them to comply with a standard we do not even expect from the best of our leaders, and not expressing anger against intolerance when it crosses limits, are things that we all need to resist.
American author and activist Helen Keller once said that, “The highest result of education is tolerance”. Is the rising degree of intolerance in the civil society indicative of its inability to reap the highest result from education? Talking about the problems that the country is facing through satire, and on the stage that is used to share extremely important issues affecting us, is not washing your dirty linen in public. Rather, it is a wake-up call to ask the right questions to the right people.
Sex education in school curriculums, consent classes, queer affirmative pronouns, queer representation, leaders who represent the progressive outlook, and mostly, the attitude to take a joke as a joke, are some of the things that our country needs, and this can only happen when we ask the authority the right questions and demand a satisfactory response.
We can not have any more Agrima Joshuas, or Munawar Faruquis. What “tarnishes India’s image abroad” is that our country of 138 crore people, who got their independence on the principle of ahimsa, threatens to throw comedians, journalists and human rights activists in jail for literally doing their job.
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There is a particular line of Das that has stayed with me, and which I find is an appropriate way to end this piece. “I come from an India that will not shut up, but I come from an India that refuses to speak up”. So, speak up, be the better part of India.
(Dakshita Dubey is currently a third-year law student at Chanakya National Law University, Patna. The views expressed are personal).