Since its inception, our satirical stage show Aisi Taisi Democracy has gained a reputation of being anti-establishment. Our audience knows what to expect. But not everyone can take a joke that hits too close to home.
During one performance, I took a dig at members of a particular religious community for their outrageous claims and irrational ways. The audience cheered and laughed uproariously. But since all religious communities tend to have similar idiosyncrasies, I then directed my barb at another community — this time a minority group. Thats when the penny dropped.
Suddenly, a section of the audience began to squirm in their seats, visibly uncomfortable. The same lot were laughing at all my other jokes. After the show, they cornered me for making fun of their practices; it was alright till the joke was on the other.
This is the slippery path an artist has to tread in a society that is so thin-skinned. We have far to go when it comes to nurturing free expression and the freedom to offend. But when this pillar of a free society is removed or is shaky, the entire edifice of freedom looks like it might collapse.
At various points in human history, this freedom has been embattled, and great minds have paid with their lives to demand it. As the modern nation state matures and finds new means of control, new battle lines are being drawn every day between the state, its institutions and the progressive-minded citizenry.
Of late, in India, the debate on freedom of expression has reached higher decibels and struck at the heart of the arts, literature and performance. The most popular understanding of freedom in India is that we threw out an imperialist power. But freedom is not an event; it is a process — a gradual, everyday process. We are still negotiating the meanings and importance of freedom and expression.
A truly modern state must have a scientific temper and institutions that value rationality, protect rights and guarantee freedom of expression. The founders of Indias Constitution took steps in the right direction. But somewhere down the line, we seem to have lost our way. Apart from our banks and industries and forests, we must also regard rationality, a scientific temper and freedom of expression as intangible national assets that need safeguarding and nurturing. But instead freedom, specially the freedom of expression, has come to be regarded as a volatile and inflammable commodity to be wary of and contained by a watchful state.
THE ART OF DISAGREEING
Tolerance and an acceptance of differing views and differences are products of rational dialectic. The corollary is that an intolerant society, with scant regard for freedom of expression, will list towards irrationality. And that regression will propel those who take offence to use violent means to snuff out non-violent expressions of opinion.
Conversely, a direct corollary of the freedom of expression is the right to offend. Many works of art, satirical art forms in particular (incidentally my area of work), cannot survive if the right to offend is taken away. Satire thrives on sparring with authority, be it the state or public figures or religious, social and public institutions. Satire is the unwanted child of oppression. History has shown us time and again that when societies are oppressed, they give birth to refined satire and powerful artworks. Satire takes on the holy cows and makes the mandarins of oppressive powerful institutions uncomfortable.
The right to offend is, therefore, a foundational liberty of a free society. Satire and art are never violent, but oppressive regimes often counter them with violence — through archaic laws, imprisonment and by manufacturing irrational, regressive debates that enable and empower mobs.
Weve seen how an artist like M.F. Husain was hounded out of the country; cartoonist Asim Trivedi arrested on sedition charges; popular comedy group AIB targetd…The rising intolerance towards stand-up comics is of a piece with this new normal. Its not the state that comes after the stand-ups, but community leaders and sundry self-appointed custodians of public morality and religious decorum.
This moral policing was on show in another recent performance of Aisi Taisi Democracy. It was a big auditorium at a prestigious engineering college in North India where wed been invited to perform. By the time we got on stage, the auditorium was packed, 1,500-odd students, with a fair percentage of young women. It was heartening to see a full house and we were instantly in the zone. The students were cheering, laughing out loud at all our stories, and getting all the subtext. It was all going really well till about 45 minutes into the show our mics were turned off all on a sudden. Assuming it was a technical glitch, my co-performer Varun Grover, who was speaking at the time, borrowed my mic, to find even that one had been silenced. A few minutes later, we were abruptly asked to leave, and an evening that looked so full of promise just a short while ago, ended quite unceremoniously.
Apparently, we had offended a professor in the audience. Universities are the last places where you expect intolerance or to encounter thin-skinned people who are quick to take offence. Just before our mics went dead, Varun was talking about the hypocrisy of Indians when it comes to sex education, how we beat about the bush, so to speak. A learned professor in the audience apparently objected to this. He said: How can you talk about sex when there are girls in the audience? Hed just proven Varuns point.
One mans stuck-up morality was enough to override the will of 1,500 students that day. But he was a professor, which is a position of authority — and Indians hesitate to question authority. As long as this conditioned reflex to unquestioningly defer to authority stays, the freedom of expression and the right to offend will be compromised, just as they were that evening in the college.
Stand-up comedians are often given a list of holy cows, topics they need to skirt in their acts. The list of no-go zones may include, but are not limited to, the ruling dispensation, religion, sex, family, nationalism, army, Indian culture, cult figures, food habits, etc. In many cases, the performer has to submit her script beforehand to a censor or host for them to clear. With these restrictions in place, the best joke a comic can come up with on stage is a zipper across her mouth. Anything else ends up offending someone and the consequences can vary, from an ugly spat, where the comic is asked to leave mid-way, to acts of physical violence.
So, are there any red lines where freedom of expression and the right to offend are concerned? Well, these principles have to be constantly renegotiated as society evolves its mores. Each act has to push the boundaries while society debates and adjusts its anchors to dock at the stretched boundaries. Intolerant censoring and bans have a chilling effect on this process, and instead empower mobs. And an offended, provoked mob is just one violent act away from turning into a vigilante group. These groups then easily defy the rule of law and force critical and progressive voices to go silent.
To expect social morality to be frozen in time is naive. And a modern, rational society must regard censorship as an old conservative relative who has outstayed his welcome. However, in a perversion of this principle, perpetrators of hate speech have often invoked the freedom of expression to spread poison among communities and to incite violence. It is important to remember that the freedom of expression and the right to offend are markers of the intellectual and moral evolution of a society. They are necessary tools to build a just, equitable, modern society. But we also have a collective responsibility to guard against the hijacking of this right for regressive purposes such as fomenting hatred.
There is a Chinese saying that goes: To each man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates to hell. We have the key, and we have to make sure we open the right gate.
(Sanjay Rajoura is a stand-up artist and writer)