On January 7, 2015, two French Muslim brothers, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, murdered 12 journalists of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The paper had published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. In October last year, a fanatic beheaded a French teacher for showing such cartoons to students. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law is misused to jail non-Muslims accused of crimes they didn’t commit—Shias and other minorities are murdered for perceived slights to the faith. In all cases religious sentiments were hurt.
Western countries are highly tolerant of mocking Jesus and various saints—a comedian jokes on Christians wearing crucifixes, “Do you think when Jesus comes back, he wants to see a f*****g cross?” American comedians, TV shows and cartoonists portrayed Donald Trump when he was president as a traitor, sexual deviant, Covid murderer et al, which would have earned immediate jail and police torture in India, and many Asian and Arab countries. In spite of racism and crime, America loves to savage powerful people. Humour is an essential part of any civilised nation’s culture, an evolved reminder that life is too serious to be taken seriously.
In modern India, except for the occasional lynching, no Hindu has thankfully shot or beheaded comedians and cartoonists. They are only jailed. This happens mostly in the North Indian heartland where Hindu sentiments seem to be getting hurt easily. The judiciary plays its part in defending the sentimentally hurt: a comic accused of cracking ‘anti-Hindu jokes’ in Indore is in prison—his lawyer reportedly complained to the media that the comedian never even got a chance to perform.
This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s judgement in December 2020 that “criticism of the government is not ground for penal action.” The arrest came regardless of Mr Modi tweeting on March 17, 2017, “We surely need more humour in public life.” Is the PM’s opinion and the verdict of the highest court in the land to be ignored coolly by local magistrates and state police? When did India get so sensitive? Unless the Hindi heartland passes for the whole of India these days.
I’m a practising Hindu but my sentiments don’t get offended easily. It is possibly because I’m also a political cartoonist in whose blood, irreverence runs like a powerful antibody to social madness. We are a country of 966 million Hindus, nearly 80 percent of the population. We follow different primary gods and goddesses; for Bengalis, Durga comes first. There are Shaivites and Vaishnavites. There are staunch Ram bhakts and Krishna bhakts. Some call out to Murugan.
We are a faith with 330 million deities, which are extensions of the ultimate divinity. In such a complex universe, a TV serial or comedian offending the religious sentiments of a single person—usually a local who gets his five minutes of FIR fame—is a travesty of our belief. Tenali Rama derided the Vijayanagara King Krishnadevaraya who enjoyed the jokes immensely. Emperor Akbar, a Muslim, tolerated Birbal, a Hindu, making a fool of him. The self-importance of politicians, because they control the police, must be mocked to shrink their egos and remind them that we are all equal in the eyes of the law and god. No, it’s not a joke.