Why we must defend Tanmay Bhat's right to humour

The intolerant reaction his act has received proves all the more why India needs it.

 |  6-minute read |   30-05-2016
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Hell hath no fury as the one unleashed when sacred beliefs of Indians (and there are lots of them - both Indians and our sacred beliefs) are offended. Tanmay Bhat discovered it the hard way when he attempted humour at the cost of the legendary Lata Mangeskar and the living god for many - Sachin Tendulkar.

Not many were amused at the comedian's below-the-belt humour. It left many with a bad taste in their mouths, but to put it mildly, that was the least of the woes that awaited Bhat. The police got into action, parties like Shiv Sena famous for their respect for cricket (forget the digging of the cricket pitch) have taken it upon themselves to set right the insult to the cricket icon and, sooner than later, death and other physical threats too may follow.

tanmay-small_0530160_053016084915.jpg The high-handed interference of the state proves to have a chilling effect on all creative work.

The whole episode is another reminder that India is no country for humour. We may bemoan why there are no John Olivers in India, but the way we go after comedians or any creative person when they offend our sensibilities must make the John Olivers of the world thank their stars that they were not working in India.

The vicious mob fury that has been unleashed on Tanmay Bhat reveals many of the evil tendencies that undermine India's credentials as a society where creativity, individuality and, at a finer level, democracy itself have space.

The attack on Tanmay Bhat deserves to be opposed for following reasons:

Down with the holy cows

A free and democratic society should abhor holy cows. Nothing and no one should be beyond questioning, being mocked or being the canvas on which a creative mind can work its wonder.

If the society creates holy cows which are out of bounds for creative portrayals then creativity is seriously undermined.

Sadly, India is a society with too many such holy cows. From the legions of gods of innumerous religions, to political icons, to Bollywood stars, to sportstars, the Bhakti tradition or hero worship reigns supreme.

Anyone who dares to question, mock or even reinterpret these icons is viciously shut down. Not just the fans, the personalities themselves seldom like to be subjected to such scrutiny. So how dare Tanmay Bhat think he could get away with the felony of attempting bad humour on the holiest of holy cows- Sachin Tendulkar?

Well we have taught him a lesson, now not just him, any other artist worth his name will think twice before daring to deal (especially negatively) with such holy cows. How wonderfully are we making true the dream that Tagore had for India- "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..."

As those who are holy cows in India are the most interesting subjects of humour and creative work elsewhere, our artists lose out a great deal due to this hero worship and the cult around holy cows.

Warriors of free speech in a society with free speech - what's that?

Ordinarily, in most democratic societies (or at least the good ones), people learn to ignore what they don't like. Not in India. We like to take offence, so much so that outrage has become a national hobby.

Here the societal temperament is shaped in such a way that anything not in sync with societal beliefs is not only ignored but also severely punished through institutional and non-institutional means.

The Talibanic coercion, the illiberal laws and an opportunistic political class ensure free speech remains an ideal confined to books. Who the heck cares for Tanmay Bhat's free speech when even our courts have disingenuously bled free speech by upholding anti-free speech legislations.

Tanmay Bhat and his All India Bakchod have been lone warriors against this tendency to submit to holy cows. They have, over a period, challenged the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. This is a yeomen service they have done to free speech in a society where free speech is not such a widely appreciated value.

Their task is a hard job full of brickbats and they may slip at times (as they may have this time), but the intolerant reaction they have received proves all the more why they are needed in the society.

The dream of the day Tanmay Bhat's humour goes ignored and the society lets him be is the dream for which the likes of the comedian need you and me to stand by them.

Nanny state or nation state?

The Indian state is ill-equipped to do many of its core jobs. It may not be able to provide safety, education, healthcare and other such basic services to citizens, but that in no way prevents our state from being a nanny state eager to jump in and adjudicate in individual matters such as what is offensive and what is not.

In fact, the state and primarily its police love to poke their nose in such business: who eats what, who has said something offensive, who wears what and who sleeps with whom.

This seriously undermines individual dignity and rights (why do we need a state to tell what I should wear or say - we are citizens not infants) and also affects the state's performance. If the police is busy chasing lovers, of course it will have fewer people to chase robbers.

Also, the high-handed interference of the state proves to have a chilling effect on all creative work.

But the demand for a nanny state is raised by us alone. Whenever such controversy ensues, one of us rushes to do our patriotic duty, file an FIR and draw in the state. And the state then happily rushes in.

Similarly, the attack on Tanmay Bhat involved the filing of an FIR and now the ACP is having a happy time playing to the gallery with statements about pulling down the video, et al.

Those who are happy that the state is quickly acting will be the ones who will be targeted when someone else with a bloated sensibility comes after them and the state will eagerly oblige.

The only way our individual rights can be saved from such infringement by the state is if we stand up for those of our fellow citizens whose views, which we may not agree with, are under attack. So to ward off the nanny state is another reason why we need to stand with Tanmay Bhat.

Finally, standing with Tanmay Bhat is a duty all lovers of liberty are called upon to be part of. We may not agree with what Bhatt says, but we must defend his right to say it.


Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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