On Tuesday, the Supreme Court observed that it cannot issue directions to regulate jokes about the Sikh community because courts cannot "lay down moral guidelines" for people.
A bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and R Banumathi said courts cannot pass any regulations asking people to behave in a “particular manner in public” and even if they do, “who will enforce them on the streets?”
The bench said it will pass a formal order on a batch of petitions alleging commercial dissemination of “insulting” jokes about Sikhs through public modes of communication, like the internet and SMS, on 27 March.
Even though the formal order will be passed later, the observation of the apex court has a valuable lesson for our society which, in this day and age, is crucial.
Comedy is and has always been a tricky subject.
The reason is that good comedy is almost always at the expense of someone or something. After all, if you cannot make fun of anything, what do you crack jokes about?
Because some person, community, habit or event will always be the butt of many jokes, someone is naturally bound to get offended, irrespective of whether the jokes are in good or bad taste. But it is what those people do after getting offended that decides whether a society has a good sense of humour or not.
And in India, there are multiple examples to show that we still have a long way to go before learning how to deal with comedy.
We all know about the massive outrage after AIB Knockout, a comic roast of actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh.
Comedian Tanmay Bhatt received a lot of flak for making fun of former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and singer Lata Mangeshkar. MNS also threatened to file a case against him and called for his public thrashing. (By the way, cracking any kind of jokes publicly about national icons like Tendulkar, Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth is probably the best way to try to fulfil a death wish.)
Actor Kiku Sharda was arrested for mimicking Dera Sacha Sauda chief and controversial godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi had been arrested in 2012 on sedition charges for posting cartoons against the then UPA government. The Bombay High Court had later upheld a petition challenging the sedition charge against the cartoonist and had observed that the sedition charge "aims at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence."
Actress Mahira Khan had to apologise for simply posing with film director Asim Raza, who was dressed up as a Shiv Sena leader holding a hilarious placard that read, "Mahira ko bahar nikaalo".
And most recently, Congress and other opposition parties demanded an apology from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his 'raincoat' jibe against his predecessor Manmohan Singh. They even disrupted Parliament proceedings in both the Houses over this issue.
The list of outrage goes on and on.
As far as obscenity and meanness are concerned, a huge part of comedy would not be able to survive without them. Comedian Russell Peters has cracked many mean and obscene but hilarious jokes on Indians. He has even come to India on various occasions and made fun of the people of an entire country, fortunately without becoming the target of widespread outrage.
What many people also fail to realise is that there are a very few topics which are too sacred or grim for comedy. All other topics like racial stereotypes, religion, sex, celebrities and politics are up for grabs in comedy.
In fact, good comedy often has to be based on controversial topics. Because as Sigmund Freud said in his paper 'Jokes and their relation to the unconscious', "The comic is concerned with the ugly in one of its manifestations: If it is concealed, it must be uncovered in the light of the comic way of looking at things; if it is noticed only a little or scarcely at all, it must be brought forward and made obvious, so that it lies clear and open to the light of day...In this way caricature comes about."
We need comedy to say all those things which cannot normally be said. We need comedy as an alternative way to express — and then laugh at — the absurdity of a situation too controversial or uncomfortable for an ordinary or serious discussion. Comedy has to be wacky and often inappropriate.
In fact, we in India should learn how to develop a good sense of humour from Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. In his book The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says, "There is, sadly, very little evidence today that Mahatma Gandhi's puckish sense of humour has been inherited by his political heirs. Asked once what he thought of western civilization, the Mahatma replied, 'It would be a good idea.' Upbraided for going to Buckingham Palace in his loincloth for an audience with the King-Emperor, Gandhi retorted, 'His Majesty had on enough clothes for the two of us.'"
If a remark like the one made by Gandhi about clothes was made by a foreign leader about the prime minister or president of India, you can expect the resulting outrage to cause an earthquake. Yes, that was a joke.
Does this mean that all jokes are in good taste? Of course not. There are times when the obscenity crosses a line.
But the best way to respond to bad jokes is perhaps the way actress Tannishtha Chatterjee responded after comedians on the show Comedy Nights Bachao kept going on and on about her skin colour, as if there was nothing else they could make fun of.
Chatterjee walked out of the show and posted a response on Facebook.
If you go through Chatterjee's post, you will notice that at no point does she abuse, threaten, call for a ban on the show or even demand stern action like a case against the comedians or having them arrested. She pointed out the poor taste of the jokes like the way you calmly but assertively place your points in a healthy debate.
Harvinder Chowdhary, the lawyer who had filed the petition for a ban on Sardar jokes, said the jokes lead to bullying of Sikhs. Now, that is a very serious issue but the Supreme Court had rightly observed earlier that in such a case, there was a need to sensitise the society.
There is obviously a world of difference between joking and bullying. If someone continues cracking a joke publicly despite a person having made it clear that he or she is getting offended by it, that is bullying. But in such a case, action should be taken against the bully, not jokes in general. If a criminal murders somebody with a knife, that does not mean one should ban knives. That means the criminal needs to be punished.
What the apex court's observation and Chatterjee's Facebook post should tell us is this:
If you are offended by someone exercising their freedom of speech in a private space, you should either leave that private space or — if there are actual flaws in what is being said — counter their opinion by exercising your own freedom of speech and giving a counter-argument.
Trying to suppress someone's freedom of speech by abusing, threatening them and demanding a blanket ban just because what is being said makes you uncomfortable is not justified.
In the end, a joke is a joke. If a world full of misery and suffering, comedy and a good sense of humour are some of the few things which make life worth living. Let's learn to laugh at a joke (or ignore it).
— With inputs from PTI
Updated Date: Feb 11, 2017 10:50 AM