Historically, regimes have had a relatively high tolerance for jokes made at their expense. Perhaps because comedy possesses a tendency to humanize great leaders, making them more likeable by the masses. Thus, in a way, a healthy amount of humour directed at regimes only served to strengthen their rule. For instance, political satire was widely celebrated in the newly-independent India. Politicians like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru even went as far as asking Keshav Shankar Pillai, the legendary cartoonists and political satirist to ‘not spare him’, asserting that all political figures no matter how highly respected should always be up for criticism by the citizens. After all, this tolerance towards criticism made for a central aspect of operating in a democracy. But with the recent arrest of Munawar Faruqui, the court order against Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja (@sanitarypanels), it is evident that the general public perceives political comedy quite differently today and have developed a rather averse or bitter attitude towards it. And the politicians and authorities no longer feel flattered and find political comedy to be offensive or even threatening to their regimes.
This difference in perceiving comedy is not simply a product of the evolution of comedy (which hasn’t evolved much and certainly hasn’t become darker or more offensive over the years). But what has changed drastically is our relationship with the government and the institutions that often find themselves being targeted by these jokes.
This new attitude stems from the rise of nationalist leaders and sentiments within the country. A common tactic employed by a nationalist leader is to create socially constructed threats and make their image synonymous with that of the whole country. By constantly drawing attention to internal (minority groups within the country) and external threats (threat of war or economic domination by neighbouring countries, etc.), nationalist leaders fuel the anxiety of the citizens, making them feel constantly threatened by these so-called ‘anti-national’ elements. Hence, the act of questioning or commenting on a leader, their movement or their policies is interpreted as an attack on the entire country and all valid criticisms can thus easily be dismissed as anti-national propaganda.
In addition to this, since religion plays such a huge role in Indian politics, politicians are more likely to cater to the wants of powerful religious groups. Thus, championing of religious causes by politicians instantly leads to their glorification and increased favourability within certain religious groups. So much so that certain political figures are often compared to or considered to be reincarnations of various Gods. With such associations established in the minds of the people, it becomes impossible to question the actions of these leaders without hurting the religious sentiments of the people. And any remark on them is taken to be a direct insult towards that particular religion.
People also tend to view the government as a patriarchal figure, one which maintains order and is in charge of the affairs of the country. So, when someone questions the government (a phrase synonymous with ‘insults the government’), we take it very personally, as if to say, ‘Arey, Baap pe mat jaa’ (Translation: Hey, don’t talk about my father that way).
So simply put, Indians haven’t forgotten how to laugh at themselves but they have developed a habit of closely identifying the ‘individual’ as the entire ‘collective’. Hence, the individual (or the political leader) is seen as the face of the collective (which could be a certain religious group, a political party or the country itself) and thus, all opposition no matter how logical or insightful feels triggering, offensive and disrespectful in nature.
As we continue to silence political comedians, we are preventing comedy from humanizing our politicians and leading to their further glorification. This trend is being employed increasingly in many countries with authoritarian governments like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, etc. where political satirists are either forced to quit comedy or to live in exile. But cracking down on political satirists doesn’t always end in favour of the government. This is due to the rise of the Laughtivism movement, i.e. the practice of non-violent dissent which uses humour and satire to dismantle fear and critique institutions. Laughtivism tends to force the government into a lose-lose situation where they can either take action against the comedians (often exposing themselves to ridicule for feeling threatened by comedians) or allow them to continue and voice their dissent (at the risk of escalating opposition towards their regime).
In India, for example, Munawar Faruqui’s new comedy special ‘Ghost Stories’ was trending at no. 7 (in India) after he was arrested for a religious joke that he did not make. And Kunal Kamra’s response to the Supreme Court went viral on various social media platforms and Rachita has continued to create political webcomics to voice dissent, even after they were both issued a court order for contempt of court. In short, the state failed to ensure corrective action on the part of the comedians. And also by taking action against them, the state ended up increasing the popularity of these comedians and broadening their reach.
But by taking such extreme actions against political comedians, what the government has managed to do is create an atmosphere saturated with fear, wherein other artists and citizens would be reluctant to express their divergent political views in public. And while many comedians have been scared into submission, others have become more vocal and even blunter with their political material. Vir Das, for example, just released the third episode of his series ‘Ten on Ten’, where he talks about topics like freedom of speech and religion, issues that many other comedians are now too scared to touch. So although there may be fewer political satirists left in the country, those still standing are just gearing up to show their teeth.
In one of his stand-up comedy routines from 2017, Kunal Kamra stated that ‘I love India, I have to say this because kaha milega inta content?’ (Translation: I love India, I have to say this because where else will you get this much content?). By repressing the freedom of expression of artists and citizens alike, the state has given political satirists something that they crave the most: content, and is fuelling the same fire that they are trying so hard to put out.
Nonetheless, in an attempt to stifle any dissent, the government has tried to tactfully diminish the scope of political satire in India. On the other hand, an increase in demand for political content, infotainment, etc. has made the business of political comedy a risky yet lucrative option. Upon his release, Faruqui posted a video titled ‘Munawar Faruqui Leaving Comedy’ which ended with him saying the words, ‘there is only one reason I do comedy, and it’s this…’ and walking into a room full of a cheering audience and being met with thunderous applause. And that’s perhaps the best way to sum up the scope of political comedy in India – that no matter how hard the state tries to suppress it, for as long as the people continue to demand political content, the art of political satire will never die out.
Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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