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Of harmless humour and manufactured anger

Authoritarian regimes know how to handle criticism.

It is comedy they have a problem with. During the 1975-77 Emergency, the government’s pressing concern was not the global condemnation of India’s suppression of civil liberties. Instead, the regime was busy with the destruction of the print of a satirical film called Kissa Kursi Ka.


Or take the more recent case of comedian Munawar Faruqui who was arrested on January 1 in Indore, on the basis of a complaint made by the son of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA. The complaint said that Faruqui “hurt religious sentiments” by making “objectionable” remarks about Hindu deities.


   The problem is that nobody seems to have a record of the allegedly offensive remarks. Nor is there any evidence that such remarks were made. The local police have now told journalists that it was believed that Faruqui would make some offensive remarks if the show was allowed to go on. So he deserved to be arrested.


   Even if this strange combination of predictive astrology and old-fashioned tyranny is upheld, it is hard to see why the police needed to arrest five other people along with Faruqui, including a brother of the show’s organiser who was in the audience, and a friend of Faruqui’s who had nothing to do with the event.


   Despite widespread outrage, all six were refused bail by Indore courts. And the UP police have now said they want to take custody of Faruqui in another case.


   The case against Faruqui is so flimsy that many people have attributed his arrest to a mindless upsurge of Hindu religious sentiment. That’s possible but it does not explain why the system has actively worked to keep him in jail. There is nothing mindless about that.


   Or take the case of the Amazon show Tandav. In the first episode, one of the characters is shown on stage in a college production, playing Lord Shiva in a satirical play. The show’s plot is not very clear (or logical, for that matter) but, from what I could tell, the intention was to draw some tenuous parallel between current politics and the tandav (or the dance of fury) of the title.


   I thought the script was absurd but hardly offensive. Nevertheless a BJP MLA from Maharashtra wrote to the Information &Broadcasting Ministry complaining that it hurt Hindu sentiments. The ministry promptly issued a notice to Amazon. Worse was to follow. Hours later, a complaint was filed at Lucknow’s Hazratganj police station by a sub-inspector accusing the show’s makers of insulting Hindu gods.


"To remind your voters that you are a Hindu party committed to protecting Hindus and Hinduism, you have to regularly stage incidents that re-emphasise the party’s Hindu credentials."

   This would have been bad enough but the UP chief minister’s media advisor then entered the fray tweeting (in Hindi) that “there is no tolerance for playing with the people’s sentiments in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. A serious case has been filed against the entire team of Tandav. Prepare for arrest!”


   The UP police have been sent to Mumbai to apprehend the show’s makers. The terrified Tandav team has now issued an apology and promised to make cuts but it is not clear if this will be enough.


   I wrote last month that Narendra Modi’s BJP had achieved what was once regarded as impossible. It had weaponised Hinduism as a vote-winner to the extent that people supported the party more on the grounds of religious identity than on the basis of its performance.


   This had been tried before, I said, by parties who framed their appeal in terms of other identities, say, Dalit or Muslim. But nobody had managed to do anything like it before with Hindus who constitute the overwhelming majority of India’s population.


   But there is a danger with this approach; to remind your voters that you are a Hindu party committed to protecting Hindus and Hinduism, you have to regularly stage incidents that re-emphasise the party’s Hindu credentials.


   It is a strategy that has been successfully mastered by many Muslim fundamentalists. Take the most famous example: The controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. None of the people who called for the banning of that book had even read it. They had no idea whether it really ridiculed Islam. But they ordered the protests anyway and got the novel banned, a crazy spiral that reached its apotheosis when Ayatollah Khomeini, who had never heard of Salman Rushdie or the book before, was told that it made fun of the Prophet. Khomeini promptly issued a fatwa urging the faithful to kill Rushdie.


   Something similar is happening with Hindus. Can it be a co-incidence that all of the complaints came from people with BJP links? That the two state governments involved (MP and UP) are run by the BJP? That so many of the alleged offenders are Muslims? (It is not just Faruqui. Tandav is created and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. The actor whose dialogues they are objecting to is called Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. And the complainers have singled out the star Saif Ali Khan who they have targeted before on similar grounds.)


   This is not just a case of sensitive Hindus being offended. It is a case of politically-aware Hindus looking for imagined offence from Muslims. Just as Muslim fundamentalists used to once say “Islam is in danger”, Hindu politicians are now playing the same game. Their subtext is “Hinduism is being defamed.” (Actually, it is not even a subtext: the pro tem speaker of the MP Assembly who has joined the call for a ban on Tandav has said as much, asking “why do people not mock other religions? Why are Hindus deities ridiculed every time?”)


   Given the past experience, it is not surprising that the Centre has made no attempt to intervene so far. What is more surprising is that the judiciary, usually so eager to help solve the nation’s problems, has not covered itself in glory either or spoken up for free expression--or the right to liberty (liberty?), for that matter.


   The message is clear. No one can dare make a joke that involves Hinduism. Even if you don’t make a joke, you may still be in danger. (As in the Faruqui case.) Because politicians need to keep reminding Hindus how they are being “insulted” and how the government will work to protect them.


   It is a model that helped Muslim politicians keep their followers distracted while they failed to deliver on any achievements of substance. And sadly, it is a model that now seems to be working for some Hindu politicians.




  • Yatin Jain 28 Jan 2021

    If you want to know where the problem is look at the coverage of this incident
    Along with Munawar, four others have been arrested - 3 Hindus and a Christian - but NO MENTION OF THEM
    only Munawar matters, Why?
    The others dont deserve a voice?
    Kind of like the folks who got burnt in the Train in Godhra - they werent victims nor the 200 Hindus killed in the carnage after
    Time we treated everyone equally - if we are serious about change!

  • Khursheed 22 Jan 2021

    Spot on. Political philosophy & strategy of RSS/BJP is unambiguous & simple; keep Hindus involved in religious matter & couldron of hindu-muslim divide boiling & use resultant hatret for collecting votes. In every instance of "hindu sentiments being hurt" only a few handful of BJP politicians are visibly involved in raking up the matter & make it a big case of attack on Hinduism etc. Not a single instance where mass rally of common people belonging to Hindu community, was held in protest.

  • Rajendra Nahar 21 Jan 2021

    One of the best article but faded in this nonsense wave. God bless

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