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Can we joke about our holy cows? Alas, not yet

🔴 The Madras High Court may have upheld our ‘duty to laugh’, but it would be too much to expect lawmakers to concur

Written by E P Unny |
Updated: December 24, 2021 8:44:37 am
The remark of the Madras High Court on the duty to laugh as an antidote to the sanctimonious humbug mounting in our public life should come as a big relief to stand-up comedians, satirists, and cartoonists. (File Photo)

The remark of the Madras High Court on the duty to laugh as an antidote to the sanctimonious humbug mounting in our public life should come as a big relief to stand-up comedians, satirists, and cartoonists. But practitioners, viewers and readers are warned not to get too enthusiastic just yet.

High and apex court rulings more specific on graver matters like arrest, custody, jail and bail are best followed in this country in degree, not in kind. You keep seeing better governed states claiming to have met a higher per cent of Supreme Court guidelines than others. This means the state has the leisure to statistically improve its compliance with law. You and I don’t have the same incremental option. We’ll have to follow the tax laws when Nirmala Sitharaman proposes them in the budget from the date she specifies. If she chooses to, she can even ask us to comply with retrospective effect.

Duty to laugh will, if at all, be implemented less stringently because the provision could hit the state and its organised friends more than citizens. Once it finds a place in the statute, all stakeholders (read potential targets) including the police, political cultural organisations and faceless mobs will have enough time to warm up to the idea. This could take forever. As the judgment points out, there are holy cows in almost every linguistic region of the country and any attempt to lessen reverence (forget stepping up criticism) would be federally resisted. State-wide icons are counted as more vote-yielding than the cow itself. So don’t expect any model state assembly to pass even a lazy resolution on the duty to laugh.

You need central legislation through Parliament. It would be a grand idea that befits Parliament’s enhanced architecture in the new central vista. The world’s most populous democracy upholding laughter statutorily would make India the envy of the European Union and the US. But then past experience doesn’t indicate any such levity on the part of our parliamentarians. They are all dead serious if you go by what happened in the House on May 14, 2012. One saw singular consensus that day cutting across party lines. The common enemy was the cartoon. Almost every MP present was livid about cartoons in the political science text book for Class 11 brought out by the NCERT. After decades of debate, the NCERT had carefully picked archival cartoons to illustrate political history lessons in textbooks. An accepted practice even in lesser democracies like Singapore. The cartoon is visual, contextual and fun — all three appeal to learners.

But our MPs found the pictures depicting leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, famously irreverent themselves, outright offensive and demanded that over a lakh of printed textbooks be pulped. While a left leader saw in the cartoons a collective conspiracy to belittle politicians and bring in totalitarianism, there were right, left and centrist leaders who were categorical that the cartoon poisons young minds. Between conspiracy theorists and child psychologists, the one-sided debate soared to trash the art work of some fine practitioners whom the nation had honoured with Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri. Only two members refused to join the herd — Sharifuddin Shariq of the National Conference and Jaswant Singh of the BJP.

Almost a decade from then, what are the chances of any parliamentary move to uphold laughter? It will get voted out unanimously. If you go back in political history without the help of our anodyne text books, you will find instances of the state seeing satire and cartoon as allies. Before World War II, the early anti-Nazi cartoons by Fleet Street’s celebrated David Low irked his own British government no less. Prime Minister Chamberlain thought they were overreactions and would only provoke a slightly hot-headed regular guy like Adolf Hitler to turn against Britain. As events led up to the war, Low was proved right. Once the war broke out, cartoons by Low and others from Britain and the US were ferried to the fronts to keep up the morale of the troops. The cartoon pricked the larger than life image of a Hitler and Mussolini, which meant they weren’t unbeatable. Also it sent out the message that the war is not to kill and wound but to gain freedom from state terror. So, how does satire threaten our security? It only threatens the enemy’s national security.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 24, 2021 under the title ‘Holy cow on a rampage’. The writer can be reached at ep.unny@expressindia.com

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