Cracking up over jokes is being replaced by governments cracking down on humorists—although not an exclusive saffron habit. Journalist Prashant Kanojia was whisked away by the police for tweeting about a woman who proposed marriage to Yogi Adityanath; the post suggested that the sadhu has a secret crush. The Supreme Court ordered his bail, and the Uttar Pradesh government got egg on its face and Kanojia became a hero of freedom of speech. Nobody bothered to notice that his tweet was not even remotely journalistic in nature. But the woman became a news story and the more-loyal-than-the-king UP Police shut down the channel that interviewed her. It also arrested the journalists, thus creating two more heroes of press freedom.
The Guru of Gorakhpur is not the first leader to weaponise anger against humour. Such backlash has nothing to do with education and class. In Karnataka, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy locked up two men for dissing him and his son online. Last month, a BJP worker landed in the soup (read jail) in Kolkata for posting a Mamata meme. In urbane Naveen Patnaik’s Odisha, journo Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was sent to statesville for making a temple joke. The UPA Government tried to censor the internet to block ugly Sonia-Manmohan memes. The age-old debate is back. Are Indians too pompous to have a sense of humour? Are our politicians too power-drunk to tolerate dissent? The answer is in Trishanku situ.
Indian journalism, with its liberal ethos and disregard for authority, was a colonial baby that came of age during the freedom struggle when the British government shut down papers and jailed journalists. This inheritance of protest is the soul of the Indian press. Fear entered newsrooms during the Emergency when the censor was the editor-in-chief. Self-censorship made its debut. The collaborator-journalist genus arrived as the harbinger of things to come.
The Indian politician changed too. The lofty pride of the freedom fighter was slowly replaced by arrogance of power, criminal muscle, dodgy education, caste clout, communal colour and crass insensitivity. From the noughties on, television has been stoking the vanity of both preening and sulking politicians. Then the social media, the scourge of information, arrived with abuse and Fake News. Powerful people do not like to be ridiculed. It pricks their sense of self-importance and omniscience. Latitude in humour, like in other seminal forces of democracy, is divided by the invisible longitude of propriety. Indian satire’s role models like Birbal and Sanjay ribbed rulers, sailing close to the edge without ever crossing it. Humour in the right hands is a savage weapon to expose flaws of leaders. But gratuitous repartee like Kanojia’s tweet is just an attention-seeking device.
Having said that, authority can afford to be merciful. How a powerful leader with a massive mandate takes a joke in his stride reveals the true nature of democracy.