The Supreme Court was recently persuaded by a public interest litigation to examine whether Sikhs can be made the butt of jokes. What a shame it would be if we cannot have a little fun at the expense of one another or, indeed, be able to laugh at ourselves now and then. If the strength of our country lies in its diversity, we must be able to revel in our differences and laugh at the idiosyncrasies — real, exaggerated or even imagined — of every community.
Sikhs have been robust enough to take the jibes in their stride and, of course, that does much credit to them. But they are not the only ones. In Mumbai, jokes abound about “mad bawas”, in Kolkata about “kanjoos Maadoos”, about “maka paos” from Goa and “wily Malayalis” from the south. The list is much longer. I can think of many more stereotypes — Gujjus who carry theplas all the way to Antarctica, Bongs who pronounce everything like a rosogulla, and Sindhi businessmen who strut about in blingy suits. Jains and Muslims haven’t been spared either. Bollywood films like Two States and Vicky Donor capture intercommunity prejudices, both artfully and humorously, but end up celebrating the spirit of happy accommodation in intercommunity marriages.
One hopes that the petition demanding a ban on websites carrying Sardar jokes does not have the support of the rest of the community, known for its good-humouredness. But if the petition were to succeed, many more peeved and easily offended persons will join the bandwagon and seek bans on perceived insults. What a boring, colourless society we would turn into if we cannot celebrate our quirks and poke a little innocent fun at one another. Are we willing to trade the joy we derive from jocular jibes for a state of hypersensitive, humourless homogeneity?
“Does the law have a sense of humour?” asks Justice Albie Sachs, former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in Laugh It Off Promotions CC vs South African Breweries International (Finance) BV. This is a question we in India ought to be asking ourselves quite seriously. Not so long ago, a cartoonist was charged under the antiquated law of sedition for lampooning the political class. A professor was jailed for circulating cartoons about a sitting chief minister. And recently, a comedian was arrested for mimicking a flamboyant godman.
Pomposity and petulance sometimes overtake the need to laugh at ourselves now and then. Perhaps we take ourselves too seriously. A little jest can do no harm. It can only do a world of good. Eliminate humour from political discourse and the freedom of speech is rendered a limp and lustreless right.
Humour, parody and satire are integral to the freedom of speech, a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution. The grounds on which the freedom of speech can be restricted are limited and quite exhaustively set out under Article 19(2). These restrictions are sovereignty and integrity of the country, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality. Restrictions can also be imposed on grounds of contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Given the pride of place accorded to the freedom of speech under our Constitution, restrictions must further qualify as being reasonable, as minimally invasive of the fundamental right as possible. Unless jokes about communities get nasty enough to threaten public order, or the integrity of the country, which they most certainly do not, there can be no case for interfering with free speech. Nor can such generic jokes amount to defamation for they are directed not at identifiable individuals but a whole community.
Unless humour and parody cross the boundaries of free speech and enter the realm of what is described as hate speech, there can be no case for proscribing them. The threshold for hate speech, punishable under provisions of the Indian Penal Code, is much higher. To constitute an offence under Section 153A, one must show that the language of the writing or the utterance is of a nature calculated to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between communities. Likewise, the offence under Section 295A, which punishes acts intended to outrage religious feelings, must be deliberate and malicious.
Humour in public discourse is necessary for social wellbeing. As Justice Sachs said in the Laugh It Off case: “A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence. Humour is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in non-violent forms. It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in a myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health.”
In times when the world is grappling with the challenges thrown up by multiculturalism and the complex problems of assimilation and accommodation among disparate cultures, India stands as a shining example. And being able to make fun of one another may have something to do with it.