The Supreme Court, in a recent order that will befuddle all right thinking persons, has decided to entertain a petition seeking a ban on all jokes about Sikhs! The Court, in its wisdom, has further enlarged the scope of the petition, and proposes to cover all communities in its juridical munificence. It has sought guidelines which it will then convert into a “ratio decidendi,” or the rationale for the decision. I am not amused.
One would have thought that with 65,000 pending cases, and having already spent hundreds of hours of its precious time on the BCCI case (which in no way helps the common man and will only replace one set of plutocrats with another), the Court would prioritise its efforts on significant legal issues rather than such misconceived grievances. By admitting this petition the Court is only adding to the pervasive ‘ban’ culture taking over this country.
We have already been told what we can eat, drink, read, watch in cinemas and TVs. We will now be told what we can laugh at. The judiciary should really introspect on whether it should allow itself to become a handmaiden of regressive forces. Further, any legal restriction on or criminalisation of humour will only provide an additional handle to a corrupt, politicised and uneducated police to harass and persecute citizens on a selective basis, as they do with cases under the IT Act, laws relating to sedition, “hurting the religious sentiments” of people and eating of beef. A situation where the police will decide which type of joke is legal and which is not is frightening.
We could not have forgotten some recent incidents where the laws were twisted and suborned to ‘punish’ those who dared to laugh at some aspects of our society: the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai was booked for lampooning the Ashoka Chakra as a symbol of the modern corrupt Indian state; the organisers of AIB ( All India Bakchod), a TV comedy outfit, were prosecuted for ‘obscene’ jokes even though no one from the audience had complained; an FIR was registered against another comedian from Punjab, Kiku Sharda, who mimicked the outrageous Godman Baba Ram Rahim Insan, for “hurting the religious sentiments” of his followers.The list is endless.
It is bad enough to criminalise any comment on a God (of whom we reportedly have 32 crores), but to equate a Godman with a God in law is the height of ludicrousness. All these people, incidentally, have been either acquitted or the charges against them dropped. But the process of defending oneself is punishment enough in this country.
Law making (a ruling by a court is ‘case law’ and therefore also law) is serious business and its implications need to be carefully thought through. Laws drafted in a knee-jerk manner, or in obeisance to populist demands, inflict untold misery on thousands, especially in the far from perfect system we have. One needs to look only at the misuse of laws relating to dowry, domestic violence, sedition and sexual molestation to appreciate this point. Even the High Courts and the Supreme Court have obliquely asked for a relook at these legislations.
Another danger is that this will inevitably open the floodgates for similar ‘copy-cat’ petitions by every other community, group or individual which either seeks publicity or feels aggrieved-people from other states, mothers-in-law, blondes, homosexuals, alcoholics, politicians, lawyers, even Judges! [JUDGE: pointing at the accused, “Do I see a dastardly criminal at the end of my arm?” ACCUSED: “Depends which end of your arm you are referring to, my Lord!”]
Even on merits, however, what can be so offensive or criminal about a joke on a Sikh (or Tamilian, or Gujarati, or Bengali or Bihari) provided it is not obscene or scatological? To joke about a community is not to denigrate them but to embrace them—it is an expression of fondness, an acknowledgement of their pivotal position in society, a recognition of their endearing qualities. We don’t laugh at them, we laugh with them.
Sikhs are not unique in this respect: the whole world makes jokes about the pugnacious Cockney, the thrifty Irish, the dour Scot, the dumb Hillbilly-but the whole world loves them too. Humour serves an important role in any civilised society. It relieves, criticises, elevates, weeps, embraces; most important of all, it teaches, whether by the understatement, the mimicry, the ‘suggestio falsi’, the pun, the satire, the paraprosdokian, the dillerism or the humble limerick. Societies which espouse humour are tolerant, sensitive to nuances of public opinion, unbigoted, open minded. By the same definition, those who seek to curb it, whether by legal diktat or by violence, are just the opposite, destined for either Talibanism or Fascism. The Courts should be wary of the clamour of the vocal majority; as Thomas Carlyle wisely observed: “ Popular public opinion is the biggest lie !”
Humour is a force for democracy and the greatest leveller of all—as the poet said, even the sceptre and crown are brought down to the level of the commoner. Perhaps that is why those in power seek to curb it. But rest assured, a society which cannot laugh at itself is not worth living in. It was Goethe who said: “By nothing do men show their character more than by the things they laugh at.”
How will the character of our nation be judged, my Lordships, when there’s nothing left to laugh at?
served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh