In November last year, world-renowned Indian comedian Vir Das made waves from the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to his home country’s capital, New Delhi, with a catchy monologue it was both a love letter and a scathing critique of Indian society.
“I come from an India where [Air Quality Index] is 9,000, but we still sleep on the roof and watch the stars,” he said. “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and collectively fiddle at night. I come from an India where we pretend to be divided on Bollywood on Twitter and yet united by Bollywood in the darkness of a theatre.
These remarks, which are only a snapshot of his monologue, earned him applause in the American capital. But back in India, he faced intense criticism, social media vitriol and legal troubles. In response to the monologue, Delhi’s Vice President of India’s ruling party demanded his arrestand a lawyer for the same party filed a complaint to the police against the comedian, claiming he had defamed the image of India.
The complaint, which never resulted in an arrest, is not the only case where comedians in India have been reprimanded and threatened by the government for doing their job. In recent years, several high-profile comedians have been targeted for their material, both by authorities and the public.
The pushback – which critics say is a symptom of the country’s growing nationalism – has had a chilling effect on India’s comedy scene. The comedians, whose job it is to push the boundaries of social niceties and poke fun at institutions, say growing attacks on free speech in India have made their jobs much more difficult. Some even throw in the towel altogether.
Photos to see – May 2022
Threats to free speech have increased across India, and not just against comedians, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party took office in 2014. A database published by Article14, a media outlet dedicated to safeguarding democracy and the rule of law, found a 28% increase in the number of sedition cases filed each year between 2014 and 2020, when Modi was in power, compared to the annual average between 2010 and 2014.
“Political opinions that come forward translate into a kind of positioning where if you criticize a particular policy, that is also seen as a criticism of the broader idea of India,” says Rahul Tripathi, professor of political science at the University of Goa and amateur. political cartoonist.
India is a Hindu majority country – with almost 80% of the population identifying as Hindu – which contains significant religious minorities like Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and more. Muslims are the largest minority, with 14.2% of Indians identifying as Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown across India, where 64% of Hindus think being Hindu is necessary to be “truly Indian”, according to a Pew survey conducted between late 2019 and early 2020.
While tensions between Hindus and Muslims have fluctuated throughout history, Modi and BJP rule have only exacerbated this divide by pushing Hindu nationalist ideals – passing and advocating laws that restrict the ability Muslims to eat. halal Meat, assist Hindu events and access new paths to citizenship.
The changing climate has made life particularly hard for Muslim comedians, whose minority religious identity makes them the target of more vitriol.
In January 2021, for example, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim-Indian comedian, was accused of repeating jokes about Hindu deities before his show, during which he was arrested for having what the police judged “intention“offend. Since then, he has had 12 shows canceled due to complaints. In a recent Instagram PublishFaruqui announced that he was “done” and thanked his fans for being a “wonderful audience”.
Faruqui’s case reflects the police’s willingness to act on behalf of “political parties and vigilante groups”, says Geeta Seshu, a Mumbai-based journalist and co-founder of the Free Speech Collective, an organization dedicated to protecting the freedom of expression in India.
Indian police have been instrumental in increasing censorship, with police forces in several states adopting harmful policies towards anti-government speech. In Bihar, located in eastern India, for example, police said people using “anti-national” or “anti-social” speech on social media would face “disastrous consequences.” Bihar Police too announcement that those who engage in protests against the government could be denied government jobs, bank loans and passports.
Kunal Kamra – a Mumbai-based comedian with almost a million Instagram followers – is another artist who has had to battle censorship. In 2018, his show at a university in Modi’s home state of Gujarat was canceled for being “anti-national” after an administrator apparently received a complaint from former students alleging Kamra had l intention to “ideologically pollute the minds of young people” before the 2019 general election, according to India time.
Then in 2020 it fell under legal fire after he wrote negative tweets about the Supreme Court, which he criticized for granting bail to a Indian television news presenter accused of complicity in suicide. As a result, the Supreme Court initiated criminal contempt proceedings against him, alleging that his tweets “cross[ed] the line between humor and contempt for the court.
“What I’ve realized is that people have thought it’s almost their birthright to be able to take offense for the past seven years,” he says. “People who are offended think something needs to be done about it.”
Tripathi, along with the University of Goa, fears that with all the public backlash comedians are facing, they are starting to censor themselves. Yet while he believes crackdowns on free speech have “increased” in recent years, he says they do not reflect the state of Indian democracy as a whole.
“Despite this backlash, India still has a very healthy community of people who engage in satire,” he says. “If you look at some of the cartoons that appear in the print media – and they can be as humorous, as critical, as satirical as they can be – it certainly does not reflect the overall content of our democracy because those who want laugh, those who want to satirize still do.
And indeed, some prominent leaders have stood up to defend the comedians under fire.
Shashi Tharoor, a lawmaker from the opposition Indian National Congress party BJP, called Das’ remarks at the Kennedy Center “brilliant” in an article on Twitter.
“A comedian who knows the true meaning of ‘upright’ is not physical but moral,” he wrote. “@thevirdas has spoken for millions in this 6 minute version of The Two Indies he hails from and champions.”
Whatever the primary source of systemic bullying that comedians face, Kamra says this censorship of comedians reflects the power comedy holds.
“When it comes to comedy, I feel like jokes really disarm the person in front of you,” he says. “Jokes are a powerful weapon to discredit a person…that’s why [politicians are] scared when the exact same thing happens to them, their movement, their culture or things that don’t fit this century.