India truly is a land of wonders. We have endured hundreds of years of hardships, and in that course our sons of soils proved their mettle and devotion to the country by fighting against oppression and standing up to the 'power'. It was this passion for freedom that made the British call our heroes 'seditionists'. But, it seems like we have a new definition of sedition today.
When a stand-up comedian goes on stage, s/he performs a set that makes the audience forget everything around them. They laugh and forget about it soon after they find themselves in the delightful company of comic-senses.
But right now, stand-up comics are in a bit of a pickle- they have to think over every joke they make and see whether it would be acceptable or not- there’s a fragile line between what is offensive and not. The ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ is a right guaranteed under the Indian constitution and holds the utmost value of India’s democratic principles.
Yet, sometimes governments do not share similar constitutional beliefs and take harsh actions against people they deem to have offended the ‘mass-sentiment’. To put it plainly, the government uses the draconian law of sedition and defamation to silence dissent. The rules are at their disposal and misused when it pertains to political purposes.
No Time To Speak
Many artists have been subjected to arrests and detentions for engaging in conversations that have offended the government in the past few years. The government’s abuse against individuals for expressing their minority perspective has led to a revolt by the extremist groups on dissent.
These fringe groups justify their actions that an individual has hurt the country’s sentiments as they have the government’s assurance in silencing dissent. Stand-up comedians, especially, are under surveillance for making allegedly offensive remarks that can potentially wreak hell on everyday people’s sentiments.
Criminal law has been used to stifle dissent and restrict individuals who speak out against the government. Indian courts have tried to protect freedom of speech and expression, but the lower courts fail in doing so.
Are Jokes Seditious- What is Right & Wrong?
Section 124A of the Indian Constitution, which pertains to sedition, used to be invoked against freedom fighters by the British. And now, artists, stand-up comedians, journalists and others are booked under these laws.
Man Booker Prize winner writer Arundhati Roy has faced sedition charges under judicial scrutiny of her books. Due to such abhorrent usage of draconian laws, many lawyers and activists find that 124A is unconstitutional and a weapon used by the government to crush dissent.
Artists Beware- Sentiments Ahead!
Agrima Joshua, a stand-up comedian, found herself in a controversy over allegedly insulting Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. She reportedly made offensive comments and the political party, Shiv Sena, was upset over her comedy set. Agrima apologised on Twitter, and she received a backlash on social media.
She faced rape threats because people found their “sentiments hurt”. This happened in April 2019, and the café where she performed was vandalised when her video of the comedy set went viral.
In 2018, Kunal Kumra had to face social media’s wrath for making jokes that hurt religious and political sentiments. Many cartoonists, stand-up comedians have encountered cases of sedition for criticising the government or the ruling party. There is a thin line in our country on what political humour should or shouldn’t be considered.
The Case of Munawar Faruqui
Munawar Faruqui, another comedian in India, has been denied bail plea for the third time by the courts. He allegedly insulted Hindu Gods during a stand-up set. The comedy fraternity has spoken against his detention and supported him on social media.
Munawar was accused of making inappropriate remarks on Hinduism and government figures on January 1, 2021, in Indore. The police arrested him despite the lack of any evidence, and the witnesses confirmed that he did not perform that night.
He had faced wrath online when he joked about a Hindu God, and his stand-up shows had been cancelled before this incident. Before he could begin his set on January 1, a mob led by Eklavya Singh Gaur, the head of a local Hindu-nationalist group and a BJP politician’s son stopped him from performing.
Crackdown On Dissent- Not a Good Look
This incident has made everyone question freedom of speech and expression and dissent in our country. The release of a recent political drama Tandav on Amazon Prime came under fire for hurting religious and political sentiments.
Vir Das, one of the most famous and internationally recognised Indian stand-up comedian, tweeted in defence of Faruqui, “The system is not just telling comedians what they can joke about, and it’s also telling you what you can laugh at. The prime target isn’t our pen; it’s your throat.”
What is the Sedition Law?
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code states that “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India’ shall be punished with life imprisonment.”
It prohibits any signs, visible representations, or words, spoken or written, that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection” toward the government. The Sedition law is a draconian law that is still used against dissenters and critical of the government.
The legal process is tedious when you are booked under sedition or defamation. Most of the cases are dismissed too late to protect those arrested or charged. Some are non-bailable offences that are taken into the trial process. Some may drag on for years, especially in the case of criminal defamation.
If any person makes any offensive remark, he is deemed ‘anti-national’ and booked under the sedition law. With sedition and defamation cases taking society by a storm, artists are forced to be careful about what they put out. Well, this is the digital age of freedom of expression; it is caged and neglected.