A lot of hue and cry was made over threats from hardline Hindu organisations and the cancellation of stand-up comedy shows in Mumbai by Munawar Iqbal Faruqui. Some so-called liberals found it atrocious and described attacks by such hardliners as an attempt to stop the free flow of freedom of expression and muzzle creativity. Like an ordinary Indian, I am ready to disown both since both appear to be in the wrong. But before that let us try to understand the issues in perspective.
Stand-up comedy has become a new way for youngsters to express themselves but most stand-up comedians try to ride a fast-track route to stardom by making fun of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and the faith adhered to by most Hindus. The use of filthy language or abuses to amuse has become a new trend. It is the same as the audience laughing every time the ‘F’ word is used in Bollywood films in acknowledgement that they have understood the conversation. I find both audiences equally banal and ridiculous when they laugh at the choicest of abuses hurled whether in films or comedies. Such words are not parts of middle-class drawing rooms even if it is spoken in a group of buddies. It is not cool.
Before terrorism became a world phenomenon and knocked WTC towers down in September 2001 killing people mercilessly, the United States and other countries used to lecture India on how to deal with terrorism. This was the result of India’s governance failures they would often argue. Whether Maoist attacks or Islamic terrorism, everything was due to provocation by the government or its failures to address issues. Terrorism from across the border was described by the West and Europe as an expression of the aspirations of the people. India devised its own way to fight it out while trying at the same time to convince these countries that they were wrong in their conceptualisation. The whole theory about economic deprivation being the reason for terrorism was demolished after the London bombings in July 2005 since the four bombers were born, brought up and educated in the UK.
Many Islamists across the world even now defend Jihadi terrorism as a result of what happened in Palestine and how the United States treated the Islamic world. India always held that terrorism of any form cannot be allowed to prevail over democracy. The answer to one wrong cannot be another wrong. Mainstream political parties have challenged Naxals to come overground and test their popularity by contesting elections, something which they did successfully in Nepal.
This example of terrorism would appear a little misplaced while talking about stand-up comedians and the reactions they get. But emotion is emotion. Whether it is the emotion that hurts Islamic sensitivities and forces people to take up arms or the emotion of some right-wing Hindu organisations or people that get hurt when their faith is challenged. Using constitutional means such as FIR or other legal recourse, which is their constitutional rights, cannot be taken away. And none should grudge that.
And why is the state failing to give protection to these people rather than allowing cancellation of shows? How can the state cite the law and order problem and deny the expression of these comedians? Before asking such questions, we should weigh what should get primacy- freedom of expression or hurt of the people by the same. If any such expression has the potential to create unrest or cause problems of law and order, what should the State do?
So-called liberals can argue why people are getting hurt by the expression of art. But they would be on quicksand if asked to respond whether they would uphold the right of people to draw cartoons of reverential figures of faith of others. Whether they would uphold the right of Charlie Hebdo that has been subjected to terrorist attacks for drawing cartoons of Prophet Mohammad? How about some Indian newspapers or artists replicating the same in their publications?
They need to be reminded that senior editor Alok Tomar was arrested and jailed in 2006 for carrying a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in his new magazine Senior India. He was charged with “hurting religious sentiments of a community” even when he had merely reproduced the cartoon that was drawn by the Danish cartoonist. None raised their voice for him so vociferously. He was later released on bail. Hindu Samaj Party leader Kamlesh Tiwari was killed in 2019 by fanatics for his remarks against the Prophet in 2015. Making fun of Gods and Goddesses to entertain would also be considered blasphemy by many more so if it comes from followers of other religions.
Salman Rushdie would not be allowed to come to India because Islamists are uncomfortable with his postulations in The Satanic Verses. Taslima Nasreen who wrote unbared the filth in Islamic society in Bangladesh is a hate figure for Muslims and she can’t hold a meeting in West Bengal. The State would not give protection. As against this, consider that noted painter M.F. Hussain painted Hindu Goddesses nude and yet the society did not ostracise him. He forgot that he was painting the revered figures from his Hindu ancestors. Why did he not dare to do the same with some of the famous Islamic figures described in the Holy Quran?
None found objections when Lord Shankar, one of the Trinity Gods of Hindus, was found running for cover in Aamir Khan starrer PK. There were some eyebrows raised but the movie became a hit. Can any actor or film dare to do the same with the Prophet or any of the revered figures from Islam? Hindus have many Gods: Muslims have only one. But in terms of inconsistencies or finding things funny, there would be many things in both religions. When you make fun of one religion and don’t dare to do the same for the other, you are exposing your bias.
Making fun of Hindus and their customs is not the same as making fun of their faith in the same way as making fun of Muslims and Islam is not the same. The use of the ‘F’ word in the context of Lord Ram (“Ram gives a F…) would hurt Hindus can be understood by anyone having any understanding about Indian society. Similarly making fun of Lord Hanuman or Lord Ganesha is not acceptable, more so because people worship them as infallible. So, if some comedians resort to ridiculing these religious figures, they should do so at their own peril.
The common argument from these comedians is that they make fun of all religions. But this is not true. In one of his comedies, Faruqui said that madrasas only teach good behaviour and how to behave with parents. But from where did he learn to use cuss words at the drop of a hat? How he faces his family back home is surprising. Or, maybe his parents do not watch his shows. Middle-class Indian families are still based on a value system. They find it uncomfortable to watch together with children and grandparents adult movies or comedy shows that use a lot of cuss words without rhyme or reason.
Why then Hindus and their faiths are being challenged every now and then? Islamic invaders destroyed temples and killed people in the name of religion. They forced Hindus to get into their own shells. The British came and tried to paint India as backward, poor and a land of snakes. They tried to impose their ideology to create an inferiority complex in Indians. After that English educated people have made it fashionable to attack anything associated with Hindus and their culture as regressive and opposed to modern culture. If you wish to be painted progressive, even if you have not acquired knowledge or skills to claim this, resort to the cheap tactic of attacking Hindus. The Leftists, Liberals, and Islamists would stand by you.
Earlier these people could do so within the four walls of some theatres or hotels. Social media has brought them into the open and exposed them to scrutiny and critical review. Youths are in an age for rebellion. But rebellion must have a cause. This could be for exposing corruption or fighting casteism or irrational things in a religion. To be relevant every religion must give answers to the issues raised. It is surprising that these comedians or so-called rebels find nothing wrong in a religion that seeks glory in the past and does not accept change since what is written are the words of God. They choose to attack a religion that is ever-changing, syncretic and eclectic.
Such bias will definitely put a question mark on their proclaimed neutrality or logic. However, those who issue threats or violence to oppose these misguided youths are not right either. India has believed in the excellence of the mind over muscle power. “Shaastra” (knowledge discourse) has always prevailed over “shastra” (weapon). Shankaracharya spread Hinduism by winning over others in a discourse about life and religion.
If you wish to fight radicalisation or wish to fight over the vitality of your religion, the best way is to first learn the religion and philosophy that have shaped life in India and invite these misguided youths to debate. Half-baked knowledge imbibed from a biased representation of history should not become the basis. Indians must trust that mind would rule over matter. If reason is the source of morality as Immanuel Kant said and if an idea rules the world, the challenge to irrationality must come from the domain of knowledge.
It is because of these reasons that I would expect people not to issue threats or verbal abuses against these youngsters. The best way is to use legal means to fight these people. Abusing others in place of abuses would demean the civilisation and culture they (those opposing some stand-up comedians) seek to represent. Read Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Aurobindo, Veer Savarkar, Mahatma Gandhi, particularly his Hind Swaraj, Dr Radhakrishnan, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and such philosophers to know what India has been.
This is good for stand-up comedians also so that they know the deeper truth of the culture of theirs or their ancestors. Condemn irrational practices in all religions and cultures.
The writer is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: the GameChanger’. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.
It is surprising that these comedians or so-called rebels find nothing wrong in a religion that seeks glory in the past and does not accept change since what is written are the words of God. They chose to attack a religion that is ever-changing, syncretic and eclectic.