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Should Historical Figures Be Exempt From Satire?

09/06/2015 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A worker sprays water on a statue of the late Mahatma Gandhi on the eve of his birth anniversary at Gandhi Park in Bhubaneswar, eastern India, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Gandhi, known as the "Father of the Nation," was instrumental in the movement that lead to India's independence from Britain in 1947. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

On the 14th of May, the Supreme Court of India passed one of the most regressive orders in recent memory, while deliberating whether criminal proceedings were justified on the charge of obscenity levelled against a poet for his satirical composition called Gandhi Mala Bhetla ("I Met Gandhi"), published in 1994.

In a judgement that is half as lengthy as a Leo Tolstoy classic and twice as vapid, the court decreed that obscene language cannot be used in context with "historically respectable figures", and that obscenity in a work of fiction (which would ordinarily be okay in any other context) cannot be accepted when alluding to the Father of the Nation. It thus elevates the Mahatma to a new hypocritical standard of "respect" and opens the floodgates to more frivolous litigation in future, in defence of our inherently fragile Indian sentiments.

"The list of items that receive state protection from satire in the world's largest democracy is getting longer every day."

In a country where blasphemy laws (section 295A) and obscenity laws are invoked at the slightest pretext to silence criticism, hound newspaper editors, victimize rationalists and gag comedians, this harebrained and highly ambiguous historically respectable figures exception is another blow to free speech.

The list of items that receive state protection from satire in the world's largest democracy is getting longer every day. With 33,000 deities (plus the one "true" god and the prophet who must never be drawn), a variety of cultural paraphernalia and a battalion of saints and shamans, we have now added dead political personalities to the "exempt from satire" roster.

If galvanizing a large population into action with the aim of pursuing a populist political objective is enough to qualify for an exemption from caricature for all eternity, then I can think of a German, a Russian and a Chinese gent from that era who might also call out from their graves demanding a little space on that pedestal along with Gandhi. I am not making the ludicrous suggestion that Gandhi is in the same league as the genocidal Nazi dictator or the egomaniac Soviet Premier, but on close inspection, you will find that the man was certainly not the saint that most Indians have grown up believing.

The Mahatma's cringe worthy experiments with celibacy and self-control which involved sleeping in the nude with his teenage grand-nieces Manu and Abha; his racist remarks on Africans ("Raw Kuffirs") during his years in South Africa; his authoritarian and at times tyrannical treatment of Kasturba and his son Harilal, which ultimately caused his estrangement with the latter; his obsession with austerity and self imposed poverty; an acute phobia of the "western evils" of technology, to the extent where he refused to administer antibiotics to his ailing wife thus assuring her slow and painful death; these are facets of his life that are seldom ever discussed openly.

"[H]e refused to administer antibiotics to his ailing wife thus assuring her slow and painful death"

Some Gandhian apologists argue that his failings on the personal front do not undermine his political achievements and his unparalleled contribution to the Indian freedom struggle. Hence we must not judge him by it. This is a disingenuous defence; one that could be entertained in case of a Churchill or a Nehru. However, Gandhi is not just peddled as an exemplary politician, but as a beacon of morality; almost a demi-god of sorts, to generation after generation of Indians. I remember back in school, the history books would describe him as the epitome of righteousness.

One cannot make such extraordinary claims while simultaneously demand that he be gauged by the same ordinary yardstick that we use for the next statesman. If we are going to defend his eccentricities, his repulsive sexual (mis)adventures and his monumental personal failings with the clichéd "he-was-only-human-after-all" line, we cannot demand that he be given a celestial status in our narrative.

For over six decades the Indian establishment has tried to suppress the dark side of their beloved Mahatma, banned controversial biographies and white-washed the academic curriculum with a thick layer of flowery rhetoric and sugar coating. Now the judiciary has bestowed an inviolable pseudo-sanctity to one of the most misunderstood figures of Indian history, by granting him full immunity from satire.

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