No laughing matter

Laughter has become a risky business, observes Nilajana Bhowmick.

Comedian Kunal Kamra is routinely accused of promoting ‘anti-national’ sentiment.
Credit: Garvmalik1/WikiCommons

In January 2021, stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested just as he was about to start a gig at a café in Indore, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power.

A group of men, led by a BJP politician’s son, stormed onstage and accused the young comic of making jokes offensive to Hindu sentiments. They were referring to material on Faruqui’s immensely popular YouTube channel – jokes that were irreverent irrespective of creed. Faruqui, who is a member of India’s beleaguered minority Muslim community, tried reasoning with the group, but wound up spending 28 days in jail for a joke he didn’t even tell that evening.

Since then, his shows have been forcibly cancelled due to threats by rightwingers, with the police urging closure rather than providing protection. Faruqui is not the only comedian in their gunsights. Rightwing groups have targeted others, too. Ribald comic Kunal Kamra is frequently trolled for being ‘anti-national’. Kamra has said that the organizers of his shows have also often threatened to cancel.

Of course, authoritarian regimes have traditionally been scared of comedy and satire. The force of laughter, after all, can penetrate even the politically unaware. But the effort to silence these comics, and the furious debates on social media surrounding these incidents, draws my attention to a wider problem.

To some extent we have always been a country of ‘hurt sentiments’, with some group or the other constantly taking offence over issues that would not even register if we had a more robust tradition of free speech. But the truth is that seven years of an increasingly totalitarian regime has silently seeped into our lives making us edgy and nervous. Our sense of offence has been weaponized. Our sentiments are hurt easily. We cannot admire something artistic without searching for something about it that offends us. We are either censoring others or censoring ourselves. Everything is controlled – either by the government or by us. So much is out of bounds. Religion, culture, books, movies, music, art, it’s all a minefield. It is just not enough anymore to be on the right side, one has to be right all the time. As the state’s grip over us has tightened, we have become porcelain dolls – fragile, über-sensitive and humourless.

We have forgotten to laugh – and this has serious social repercussions, for when we laugh together, it is difficult to hate each other.

Contrarily, however, I also wonder if being in this perpetual state of offence is also a form of defence? After all, what is there to laugh about anyway? We are constantly being gaslighted by the government and fed half-lies and untruths. We have lost too many people unnecessarily to Covid-19 owing to government inefficiency, the conflagration of funeral pyres still fresh in our nightmares. The economy has tanked, vegetable and fuel prices are skyrocketing by the day, the government has begun to crack down on our thoughts and actions, on our protests – and our laughter.

In a country where comics are stopped from telling jokes, it’s understandable that people will forget to laugh.