As long as society has existed, humour has frolicked, crept and jostled alongside popular discourse – sometimes irritating and oftentimes outraging entrenched interests. Where democracy was in short supply, as in Hitler’s Germany or eastern Europe or, for that matter, in notional democracies like Egypt humour made short shrift of repression and to strip the powerful of their pomposity.
So in India, when stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra came under the crosshairs of the state for ‘scandalous comments’ against the Supreme Court in its decision to grant bail to the BJP’s pet anchor and television channel owner Arnab Goswami, it was just the latest in a long list of fellow-satirists who had felt the state’s boot on their necks.
Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal, representing the Narendra Modi government, last week accorded sanction for contempt of court proceedings against Kamra for letting loose a barrage of laughter-inducing or horror-triggering remarks (depending on which side of the political divide one belongs) on the apex court’s ruling. And, to top it, Kamra made it clear he stood by each of his comments no matter what.
One doesn’t know how the top court will view Kamra’s tweets but the fact that he is in the queue for arraignment makes it clear that, once more, insouciant humour is being targeted for indictment.
Kamra can justifiably feel proud that he joins the ranks of comedians, humourists, satirists and jokers who have been perceived to threaten and shake the foundations of hallowed institutions, society’s holy cows and touchy governments where political opposition and the intelligentsia with their ponderous criticism have failed to make a dent.
The crib, reflected in the various comments, editorials and opinions in the media on the apex court judgment, is simply that Arnab Goswami, an avowedly pro-central government media owner, managed to jump the queue and get a series of hearings when scores are waiting even years to get a chance to be heard. Not just that, the said owner gets bail (even if on merits) while fellow-citizens languish in dark, dank and COVID-hit prisons, trapped in a legal web. Kamra’s satire goes straight to the heart of the matter, unencumbered by legal niceties.
In a 1981 article on ‘The Political uses of Humour’ in the journal of semantics ‘Et cetera,’ the author Ronald G. Webb writes, “One threatens a symbol or idea advocated by an institution (in this case the judiciary) when one treats it as less than sacred. Humour, when used to ridicule and degrade a symbol, presents this threat.”
Those who advocate allegiance to the institution being targeted will experience the humour as insidious, malicious, injurious and/or degrading, writes Webb. In some ways, Kamra will have to experience the consequence of such an interpretation.
Humour as an instrument of critique, over time, has invariably been an instant hit as a ‘joke.’ It has the uncanny knack of hitting the bull’s eye compared to reams of comments, treatises, and arguments where the messaging can easily get lost in a maze of words.
Funnily (pun intended), it is not one particular kind of state or ideology that tends to get offended and/or threatened by humour. Across the political spectrum, through various nations and differing ideologies, satire can have deadly consequences.
According to the German Der Spiegel magazine, quoting from a book on Nazi-era humour, Berlin munitions worker Marianne Elise K. was overheard telling a joke to his colleague:
Hitler and Göring are standing on top of Berlin’s radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to cheer up the people of Berlin. “Why don’t you just jump?” suggests Göring.
Marianne, the raconteur of the joke, was arrested and executed.
Incidentally, contrary to the perception that governments are filled with serious blokes who don’t smile and remain dour all the time, the reality is they can use humour to deadly effect. The state, establishment or the ruling elite powered by a supine media and, now, social media uses humour and satire selectively to discredit their opponents.
In India, the RSS-BJP blitzkrieg on Congress’s Gandhi family has had a devastating effect on the image of Rahul Gandhi, for example. Described as ‘pappu’ (a patronising term by which an apparently immature young person is addressed) and made fun of by right-wing trolls, Rahul Gandhi struggles to be taken seriously. Rahul Gandhi has never been part of any government and neither is his ability to administer been tested. Yet, the description sticks to him wherever he goes and whatever he does. The day he shakes off ‘pappu,’ the satirical baggage he carries, is when he may experience political success.
It does not stop with Rahul Gandhi. Supporters of the ruling establishment on social media have conjured various satirical terms to de-legitimise their ideological rivals like ‘urban naxals,’ ‘sickulars,’ ‘libtards’ and mixed marriages as ‘love jihad’ that have sequestered and pushed opponents on the defensive.
In an earlier era, the boot was on the other foot – with ideological rivals calling the RSS cadres ‘knickers’ or ‘chaddis’ drawing on the khaki shorts worn by them. Since then, the shorts have been replaced by khaki trousers but the name stays on, though marginalised, under the dominant rightwing narrative.
Satire, in general, turns sharper in proportion to rising socio-political crisis as is being seen in several parts of the world, including in India. Nothing illustrates this better than the case of Bassem Youssef, Egyptian anchor and host of a humour show. A former heart surgeon, he put out short videos on YouTube during the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. It won him millions of views but he earned the wrath of the government. But, fortunately, Mubarak fled and was replaced by an elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Youssef was invited to host a satirical show on a popular TV network. He quickly angered the Morsi government who accused him of insulting the president and Islam. He was arrested but he challenged the charges in court. Thankfully for him, Morsi was deposed in a military coup by Army chief General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. This enabled Youssef’s release and a resumption of his TV show. Before long, the al-Sisi government got upset with the satirist. This time, he swiftly fled the country to safer pastures. Clearly, for some diehard satirists, governments are ideology and leadership-agnostic.
India’s own Kamra appears to have expanded his oeuvre from merely targeting Arnab Goswami to a much bigger prey – the judiciary. The nation will want to know where his satire, in this case, will lead him to – perdition or exoneration. Watch this space.