Walter White, the iconic anti–hero of Breaking Bad, is most famous for one particular line: “Say my name.” It was this astonishing display of arrogance and vanity that served as one of the major checkpoints in White’s transformation from an average Joe to crime kingpin Heisenberg. One could be forgiven for drawing parallels between his metamorphosis and that of the Indian government, which has, this year, seemingly made it its personal mission to control and censor freedom of speech in the country and, thus, make a mockery of the country’s status as the ‘world’s largest democracy.’
Just look at the scandal surrounding comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB). Life was good for them. They could legitimately claim to be India’s premier stand-up comedy group and they had had a brilliant 2014, rounding off with India’s first comedy ‘roast,’ where Bollywood ‘actors’ Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor were willingly subjected to taunts and insults, all in the name of charity. In a country where popular culture is basically a byword for Bollywood, this was a resounding success: 4000 people flocked to watch the stars get taken down a notch and the viral YouTube video of the same gained a million hits in 12 hours, an unprecedented amount for a comedy show in India.
Then came the monster from under the bed, accompanied by Eminem’s lyrics ‘Guess who’s back’ playing repeatedly in the background: the Indian moral police. Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, social media erupted: the show was denounced for being ‘offensive’ and ‘hurting sentiments’, which happens in India whenever someone breathes. Notwithstanding that that is pretty much the point of a comedy roast, the criticism was severe and came from figures of prominent institutions, such as from the Maharashtra Chief Minister himself. The mood and logic of the critics was perfectly captured by Ashoke Pandit, a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), because the best way to express outrage against vulgarity is to tweet something equally, if not more, vulgar. Mumbai Police, not to be outdone in the race to the bottom, started handing out FIRs like they were sweets: Singh and Kapoor got one for being willingly roasted; AIB and the rest of the panel got one for willingly roasting; Singh’s girlfriend, actress Deepika Padukone, got one for laughing at these jokes; and Baba Ramdev got one for existing (the last one isn’t true – but one can live in hope). Long story short, if you were a human being, you probably got an FIR filed against you.
And therein lies the problem with this Orwellian display of censorship that the Indian government has turned to with worrying relish in the past few months. The lines are being increasingly blurred between what is acceptable and what is not, and this should not be the case in a country where the ‘world’s largest democracy’ tag is thrown around like a badge of honour. Having a police report filed against you for laughing at something you found funny is something even Kim Jong-Un wouldn’t dream of. Comedy isn’t the only field which has been affected: others such as activism and gastronomy have also had an axe wielded against them. But the threat to comedic expression is more frightening, more real, because it is something we all engage in on a daily basis. Casual banter and friendly insults are common amongst friends at work, school and all walks of life – and this is exactly why the curb on comedy is so concerning. India ranks 140 out of 180 countries in the latest Press Freedom Index, behind shining examples of democracy like Uganda, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. No doubt it will slide further if the current status–quo is maintained.
In a world increasingly fragmented along the lines of race, religion, sexuality and a host of other absolutely irrelevant measures (when it comes to exercising this freedom), democracy and the consequent freedom of speech it enshrines is something to uphold, promote and cherish. Instead, India’s rulers have displayed absolute arrogance in proclaiming themselves the guardians of ‘Indian culture,’ a claim not too dissimilar from what Putin has used to justify his aggressions in territories with a significant Russian population. Economic growth, the primary reason the current government won a huge mandate last year, is meaningless without societal development accompanying it. It would be brilliant if this was realised sooner, rather than later, and if you don’t agree with this notion, I will be expecting an FIR through the post soon.
Article by Mihir Choughule