The Heartland's Insecure War on Humour
Social media, the dark pasture where trolls and constables of bigotry graze, is where wit is hunted, killed or driven out.
Had Tenali Raman, the Birbal of the South, lived in the Hindi belt in the present age, an FIR would be filed against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. His story goes like this. Raman goes to a famous temple and recites a mantra. The many-headed Kali appears in all her glory but Raman starts laughing.
He tells the bemused Mother, "When I catch a cold, with one head, I can’t manage. With so many heads, you would be in serious trouble!" Pleased with his wit, she blesses the satirist who then becomes the court jester to King Krishnadevaraya in Vijayanagar. Ruins of the empire (Hampi) now rest in modern Karnataka, where incidentally, sentiments are routinely hurt in a laissez-faire manner in the domain of Tejaswi Surya.
Social media, the dark pasture where trolls and constables of bigotry graze, is where wit is hunted, killed or driven out. The cow belt's guardians have unleashed a war on humour. Comedians are trolled and banned on flights. They are sent to jail for jokes they did not crack, with a Madhya Pradesh HC judge frowning that "such people will not be spared".
Contrast this with a badass ruling last week by Justice GR Swaminathan of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court who asked, "'Laugh at what?' is a serious question. This is because we have holy cows grazing all over from Varanasi to Vadipatti. One dare not poke fun at them. There is however no single catalogue of holy cows. It varies from person to person and from region to region. A real cow, even if terribly underfed and emaciated, shall be holy in Yogi’s terrain." Beware, Your Honour, this could invite police action for insulting cows and the holy chief minister.
There are historical and social reasons why the Hindi belt cannot hack humour. Satire is cool only in a prosperous society with good governance and leadership, law and order, high literacy and prosperity. South India, in comparison to the North, gets top marks in all these parameters.
The South is easy and welcoming - it was Telangana leaders who invited Munawar Farooqi to perform in Hyderabad after the comedian was hounded in BJP-ruled states. Tamil Nadu spends Rs 32,599.54 crore for school education while UP around Rs 18,000 crore.
About 36.4 percent people are fully illiterate in Bihar while Kerala has 96.2 percent. Per capita incomes in the South have risen - a study noted that as of 2009-10, the average per capita income in the south of the Vindhyas was Rs 19,531 against Rs 8,951 in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In 2009-10, the average poverty rate in the South was 19 percent against 38 percent in the North. Decades of corruption, caste politics and police violence have returned the heartland to the Medieval Age.
In the South, economics trumps religious politics any day. Tamil Naidu's MK Stalin is India’s most forward-thinking leader with a progressive finance minister and an eclectic team of economists while Northern election campaigns centre around religion and multi-crore freebies at public expense.
A confident society has the pizzazz to laugh at itself. As the Russian joke goes, why did the tyrant Stalin never say the word "thank you" in his whole life? Answer: "Mostly because he didn’t speak English." Will the Hindi heartland get the joke or get mad at me?
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)