‘Torn Between The Choice To Be Humorous Or Be Safe’

Shubham Kashyap, 24, a stand-up comedian, says the recent arrest of Munawar Faruqui only shows we have forgotten to laugh at ourselves. Kashyap would prefer a shoe missile from the audience than vitriolic trolling on social media

I have been doing stand-up comedy for nearly three years now, but each year it is getting more difficult to write jokes that wouldn’t offend anyone. There’s always someone waiting in the wings to get offended by the most miniscule of things.

Comedy is no longer a laughing matter and comedians have to constantly keep walking on eggshells, maybe glass shards, to not get caught in a controversy. We had thought 2021 would be a better year for us, but on the very first day of the year (January 1, 2021), a fellow stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested from Indore.

The pandemic taught us the need to laugh at ourselves. Just see what we have done to the world by taking ourselves so seriously. People in our country can get offended at every chance they get. They consume offence for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To be caught between the need to express your creativity and the need to stay safe is unnerving.

ALSO READ: As A Cartoonist, I Must Question The Establishment

I was appalled at the way Faruqui and others were treated, what with the fact that his bail kept getting postponed, even though there was no evidence. As about the YouTube clip that was uploaded last year, he had already apologised for it.

I wonder when the culture in our country surrounding laughter changed so much; probably post-2014. From a country that prided itself on the culture of rajya vidushak (a court jester who could make fun of kings) for thousands of years, we have reached a state where making fun of, or questioning, the establishment can land you in trouble.

Kashyap says we now live with straitjacket labels as either Anti-Nationals or Bhakts

Holi festivals were always associated with Hasya Kavi Sammelans and celebrated with someone titled as the Moorkhadhiraj (king of fools) each year. We knew then how to laugh at ourselves earlier. Now we live with straitjackets labels: People who laugh at a BJP joke are dubbed anti-nationals while people who laugh at the Left are called Bhakts.

I would also like to add that religion is a sensitive matter and to make jokes on a religion that you have not lived, understood or practised deeply, might put you in a difficult situation. Religion is beyond reason for most people and they think emotionally on the matters of faith.

So, if you really have to crack a joke on religion, do it for the religion that you ‘practise’. Also, there is a fine line between genuinely questioning people, countries, religions in a humorous way and couching your dislike for one behind the veil of humour. Even though the violence cannot be justified, what appears in magazines like Charlie Hebdo or Jyllanden Post can definitely not pass as humour.

ALSO READ: Charlie Hebdo And The Laxman Rekha

I have been performing in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-NCR and carry a reputation for being able to evoke uproarious laughs (attahas), using over-the-top Kanpur style as well as Lucknow’s delicate sense of humour (tehzeeb). But now I feel cracking a joke in UP and NCR could be risky.

I once received a flying shoe missile from the audience for one of my jokes. But shoes hurt less than the social media trolling. In 2016, I had cracked a joke on Modiji’s promise of ₹15 lakh on Promise Day (in Valentine’s Week), and my email inbox felt like a volcano waiting to explode. I have tried to live and learn amid such experiences.

Year 2020 was tough and I hope 2021 teaches everyone to chill a little. May stand up comedians crack better jokes; may freedom of expression be understood for what it is (the right to extend your arm ends where the other person’s nose begins). May we learn to be more offended by how living beings are treated! May laughter go viral!!

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘France Has Ridiculed, Provoked Muslims – Repeatedly’

Saif Ali Lawman, 23, a Law student from Lucknow, says freedom of speech is not absolute, it comes with certain caveats. Lawman believes France must learn secularism and co-existence from India

Depicting Prophet Muhammad’s image comes under blasphemy and it has been so right from the beginning. Western countries need to understand that you cannot challenge 1400 years of belief with provocation, repeatedly. As a law student, I seriously believe that neither is blasphemy right, nor is killing someone in the name of blasphemy.

British colonialism is talked about a lot but French colonialism rarely finds much mention. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe and a large part of that population has its roots in Tunisia and Algeria, former French colonies that struggled for independence. Many are also unaware of the Levant Crisis that took place in 1945, soon after World War II where many west Asian countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Syria were caught between the French and the British. In short, France has a history of fraught relations with the Levant countries.

Why I am mentioning all this is because I want that the French government should look inwards if it really wants to resolve the matter, so that everyone can live in peace. It should work towards understanding the problem of immigrants and those who have lived for many years in France and yet don’t feel accepted by society.

ALSO READ: ‘Neither French Beheading Justified, Nor Provocation’

France claims to be a secular country, but secularism doesn’t mean washing away or repressing identities; it stands for assimilating various identities in a harmonious blend.

Saif does not believe France is a secular country

I feel sad about the teacher Samuel Paty who was beheaded last month, but I would say the French authorities are as rigid about their points of view as those they believe to be Islamists are. I always marvel at the way our country has managed to assimilate diverse identities and walk together for so long. We respect each other’s boundaries here, barring a few exceptions of course. We understand that the right to extend one’s arm ends where the other person’s nose begins.

Before 2014, my Muslim identity was just a lens I chose to view life from. Even though post 2014, certain things have changed, yet I would say things aren’t as bad as they are in Western countries. Western countries have tried to use law to foster secularism, but haven’t given as much importance to social cohesion and emotional cohesion as India does. We have a much larger population than many western countries, yet we manage more or less to maintain harmony.

ALSO READ: Charlie Hebdo And Laxman Rekha

France needs to bring in strict laws to counter those who believe in violence but it also needs to make sure that it doesn’t play with religious sentiments of minority faiths. Ek bade pariwar me khat pat chalti rehti hai, par agar shuruat me hi uspe dhyan diya jaye to cheezein zyada bigadti nahi (A large family bears disagreements often. If the issues are nipped in the bud, it ensures peace at home).

I believe France isn’t a secular country at all, but an orthodox country and it needs to understand the true meaning of secularism from countries such as India.

Recently when a Muslim woman broke Ganesha idols in Bahrain, she was swiftly handed over to the police. Muslim countries have a bad reputation but if France truly understood the meaning of secularism, it would question the people at Charlie Hebdo too. Freedom of speech is not absolute, it comes with certain caveats.

‘Neither French Beheading, Nor Provocation Is Justified’

Mufti Mohammad Israfil, 52, says France must learn from India how to peacefully co-exist in a plural society. The Mufti from Kanpur, UP, also believes that state and religion must remain separated

What happened in France last month was abominable, from both sides, though as President, Mr Emmanuel Macron should have handled the matter with some cool-headedness and grace, as is expected from top leaders, instead of making this an emotional issue.

I still remember the first time the image of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllanden Post in 2005. It was a provocation then, and it was a provocation when Charlie Hebdo published it. Provocation is neither journalism, nor art. Cartoons are meant to give food for thought, not hurt a popular sentiment.

We in India, before 2014, knew how to not cross one another’s boundaries. Different religions have co-existed peacefully for a long time here. Perhaps the world could learn from the pre-2014 India on how not to cross the line.

Religion is fluid –or at least its interpretation is fluid, while government is a stable structure in the sense that even a single change needs to pass through multiple bodies. Common people keeps moving between the two in their public and private spheres. Governance and religion must remain separated. I do feel unhappy about the people running Charlie Hebdo or other similar provocative publications; and I feel equally miffed when artists like MF Hussain take the liberty of drawing the objectionable images of Hindu gods and goddesses. It takes so much time to understand your own religion, how can you make fun of another religion that you don’t even understand?

ALSO READ: Charlie Hebdo And Laxman Rekha

Samuel Paty, the teacher who was killed, needed to understand that it was a contentious topic he was teaching. And as far as I have read, the matter had been stretching on for some time with the school authorities.

The Mufti from Kanpur says none of the party is entirely blameless in France’s case

Strict legal action should be taken against those guilty, but the government also needs to ensure that age-appropriate topics are introduced in the correct manner. Even wise men in government offices have been unable to solve such issue, as was seen in the Denmark case. Therefore with children, we require extra care in dealing cross-cultural issues. I am not justifying what happened, but none of the party is entirely innocent.

Islam was perhaps the first religion to bring law into social dealings. Many other religions might have had laws but people were being governed according to the whims and fancies of the kings or heads of state. Islam tried to give powers to the common man and you could say the Quran and Hadees are books of law.

The maulana, mufti, qazi interpret law and serve justice. Islam is never about spreading terror, but about spreading love for yourself, your neighbours, to the less fortunate. I would say ‘religious pollution’ has put important social issues on the backburner. If I were to tell you who is responsible for this atmosphere of ‘dharmik unmad’ (religious hysteria), I would say Israel and the US.

ALSO READ: Agenda To ‘Liberate Islam’ Has A History

As the pandemic has shown us, we are all in this together. We need a world that knows how to come together. In India we have co-existed peacefully, more or less, despite diverse language, food, and clothing with every few kilometre. The world needs to see and learn from us that there is a solution to the situation the world is in today.

Mutual respect is the key in handling sensitive issues. Prophet Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Krishna are all revered figures and Islam says respect (especially for the leaders of others) is the pillar on which a society stands. I wish there is neither more provocation, nor more bloodshed as a response to that provocation. Restraint is the currency of a peaceful society.

Charlie Hebdo And The Laxman Rekha

A cartoon is “a simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way, especially a satirical one in a newspaper or magazine.” And a caricature is “a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”

One must be naïve to dwell on dictionary meanings of the two, trying to know why and how religion and politics, crusade versus jihad, blasphemy and blood-letting have intruded into what should be a medium of amusing enlightenment.

This naivety seems misplaced in a world that is divided between the Macrons who want unrestrained freedom to draw and write at the risk of hurting sentiments and the Mahathirs who want to avenge that, even with violence.

Macron’s France is on edge after the republication in early September of cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) by the Charlie Hebdo weekly, which was followed by an attack outside its former offices, the beheading of a teacher and an attack on a church in Nice that left three dead. The chain of violence and protests continues, worldwide.

While Macron now ‘understands’ and ‘respects’ the anger his calling the perpetrators of violence ‘terrorists’ has aroused among the Muslim protestors, he resolutely defends the “freedom of expression.” Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who advocated “moderate Islam” in the last century, now says his call for “killing of millions of Frenchmen” was “quoted out of context.”

ALSO READ: Muslims Have Right To Kill French: Mahathir

For them all, the devil lies in the printed/spoken word, and in the cartoons – or is it the mind at work in these highly polarized times?

Mercifully, some moderate views are also coming forth. Canada’s Justin Trudeau defends freedom of expression but says it is “not without limits” and should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt certain communities.” But this was met with violence in Quebec.  

Now, Macron, too, says: “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.” Though belated, wise words indeed.

This brings me to India and Indians – warts and all. Muslims in some cities have protested – so also have Bollywood biggies like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, angering many from their community.

Don’t go by the current phase, or past aberrations — Indians are generally tolerant, even complacent, and do not respond easily, even to something wrong and unjust. For good or otherwise, this explains why so many who do not belong have made it their home.

The government of Narendra Modi, often accused of dividing people, has rightly condemned violence against the cartoons’ publication, but without condoning their controversial content. The underlying message is: why drag in religion (read ‘others’ religion) to show how free a society you are?

I wish all of them observed the “Laxman Rekha.”  Referred to in Hindu epic Ramayana as an impregnable line Lakshmana draws asking elder brother Rama’s wife Seeta not to cross it while he goes searching for Rama. But she crosses that, and is abducted by Ravana. In modern Indian parlance, it refers to a strict convention or a rule, never to be broken.

I am not referring to Ramayana’s red line, but to the modern Indian one that, never really drawn, but was practiced and enunciated by renowned cartoonist R K Laxman.

His lines were indeed, the proverbial “Laxman Rekhas” that told you what is rational. The humour was intrinsic. It stung your mind, but gently. They wove a spider’s web that even the intended target would shrug off. They were not like beehive that a bee-lover or even a bee-keeper would dread to go close to.

They were soft and were minimal – indeed, a few strokes, and it did not require any effort to know which character was being drawn and what was the message.

Press in India has for over two centuries been embellished by numerous cartoonists and caricaturists.     Indeed, Indian cartooning tradition is a positive one, saying the damnedest thing without being venomous. Abu Abraham, O V Vijayan, Shankar and so many others made scathing comments without hurting.

But, arguably though, none has surpassed Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Laxman. Born on October 2, 1921, he died, aged 93, on January 26, 2015.

ALSO READ: Manto’s Relevance In Freedom Of Expression

For over six decades, five of them spent at the Times of India newspaper, Laxman gave those in power a little rap on the knuckles that was no more than a call to correction. It was never a reprimand.

He spoke through his mascot, the battered and bewildered “common man”.  Whatever the changes India has undergone, the “common man” continues to symbolise the quintessential Indian.

Anthropologist Ritu G. Khanduri notes, “R. K. Laxman structures his cartoon-news through a plot about corruption and a set of characters. This news is visualized and circulates through the recurring figures of the mantri (minister), the Common Man and the trope of modernity symbolized by the airplane.”

Friend and former colleague Arun Vardhan says the lines he drew were soft and light and composite in nature. They reflected a southern Indian mind evolved over millennia, at once secular and humane.

That ethos Laxman contributed to is under grave threat. He thrived when the society was not this polarized.  Intolerance has grown, and it is not politics and politicians alone. Social media has ‘democratized’ opinion – indeed, everyone has an opinion — to express and to defend. It has provided a perceived net of anonymity for the person/s to spew venom or hatred. 

Dr Mrinal Chatterjee, Director, Eastern India Centre of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) regularly surveys the media scene, particularly the burgeoning one in several Indian languages. He is pained at the scene all-around but assures me that by and large, the cartooning scene has stayed above the toxicity.  But we both wonder, worryingly, for how long?

People are getting tired. Viral on the social media these days is a collage of old Laxman cartoons wherein the “Common man” and his spouse are asking: why have stopped laughing?

Laxman and his era may be past, but each society needs to draw its own “Lakshman Rekha” if it has to survive and leave something good for the posterity.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com