What a strange country we live in.
On one hand our fine officers of law enforcement are scouring through two plus minutes of a Snapchat video spoofing two great Bharat Ratnas to determine if it’s defamatory. The police are asking Facebook and Youtube to take down the Tanmay Bhat clip that makes fun of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar because political parties claim the video is “hurting sentiments all over India”.
On the other hand a forensic and scientific laboratory in Mathura, has determined after seven months that the meat recovered from the refrigerator of the late Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri is of cow or its progeny. The preliminary report had suggested it could have been goat. But it’s cow after all or so says the final report.
Here are two simple truths we cannot seem to get.
Even if the slaughter of cows is illegal, even if the consumption is illegal, the punishment for that cannot ever be death by lynching. Even if a comic video is tasteless and severely un-funny , the punishment for that cannot ever be the arrest of the comedian.
Even if the slaughter of cows is illegal, even if the consumption is illegal, the punishment for that cannot ever be death by lynching.
Even if a comic video is tasteless and severely un-funny , the punishment for that cannot ever be the arrest of the comedian.
Are these concepts so difficult to understand? Not really. But politicians are always happy to stir up the outrage and divert public attention from the basic issue.
They gain far more by making it an issue about hurt sentiments – hurt religious sentiments, hurt national sentiments.
“The MNS will not tolerate such freedom of expression,” said Amey Khopkar, the head of the film wing of that party. We have political parties, aggrieved on behalf of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar, who rile up the populace, burn effigies of Bhat and then claim that the video could undermine law and order all over India.
“Bhat isn’t responsible for the public disorder,” writes Nikhil Pahwa in Quartz. “Political parties are, the mobs, and perhaps even some news channels are. The people creating public disorder aren’t the ones posting a parody video.” But who cares about such nuance?
The government says the forensic report will have no bearing on the Dadri case whose FIR does not mention cow slaughter. But again, who cares about nuance.
The government says the forensic report will have no bearing on the Dadri case whose FIR does not mention cow slaughter. But again, who cares about nuance. The defense lawyer tells Indian Express “Now that the report has been released, we can demand the addition of sections relating to cow slaughter and beef consumption in the case.” The implication will be Akhlaq brought it upon himself, that this was a case of sacred cow rage just as we have road rage. The BJP’s Shrichand Sharma has already put forth that line of defense. “The Hindu community worships cows. Whose blood won’t boil if they see cow slaughter?”
We are in the business of creating sacred cows so then politicians and their stormtroopers can make defend them against insults. It’s a political organizing tool to rally the troops.
In striking down Section 66A of the Indian Penal Code the Supreme Court said “being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the Penal Code at all. They may be ingredients of certain offences under the Penal Code but are not offences in themselves.”
But the Supreme Court has also ruled that profane language against Mahatma Gandhi was unacceptable even in the name of satire.
But the Supreme Court has also ruled that profane language against Mahatma Gandhi was unacceptable even in the name of satire. That stemmed from a Marathi poem – Gandhi Mala Betla Hota (I met Gandhi). At that time one of the justices said “You can lampoon, satire or criticize the historical personalities but you can’t attribute expletives to them.”
A potty-mouthed Gandhi is unacceptable to the nanny state. And now if the latest brouhaha is anything to go by a potty-mouthed Sachin Tendulkar or Lata Mangeshkar are equally unacceptable. In a country where cricket and Bollywood are unofficial religions, this kind of Lakshmarekha creeep was inevitable. Your free speech stops there. And there. And over there as well. The list can keep growing. The Bharat Ratna apparently comes with insurance against insult and abuse. Someone should inform Amartya Sen about that.
Of course, it’s rather depressing that in the name of free speech we must defend such bad taste and such bad jokes. There’s something pretty rotten in the state of freedom of expression these days that puerile ageist jokes about an 86-year old singing icon have become the latest battleground for freedom of speech and Tanmay Bhat its warrior.
That seems to suggest that the real point of contention is what the Akhlaqs were eating as opposed to how a mob found its way to his house and bashed him to death. And if that makes his death even a smidgen more justified, shame on us.
But freedom of expression does not always involve Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen or M F Husain. The Mangeshkar sisters and the Mangeshkar fans have every right to be offended by it. Asha Bhosle says “I now want to wait and watch how many people will stand by us.” But does that mean Tanmay Bhat has done something criminal?
Wait, didn’t those who killed Akhlaq in Dadri actually do something demonstrably criminal?
In the end the Snapchat affair is much ado about what is ultimately a spoof and does not pretend to be anything else. That it is being taken so seriously is surreal.
But what is even more surreal is the energy spent investigating the actual nature of the meat from Dadri. That seems to suggest that the real point of contention is what the Akhlaqs were eating as opposed to how a mob found its way to his house and bashed him to death. And if that makes his death even a smidgen more justified, shame on us.
This is not really an argument about the limits of humour in India today. It’s about misplaced priorities. It’s about losing perspective. It’s about a nation where the arm of the law reaches inside refrigerators and parody accounts all in the name of protecting us.
And that is not funny at all.