ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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To Critique with Laughter

If everyone laughs at the powerful, can they remain in power?

Journalist Prashant Kanojia was recently arrested for making a joke, his crime being that he incited laughter against Yogi Adityanath by means of a post shared on social media. Kanojia’s case has been compared to another recent case where Priyanka Sharma, a Bharatiya Janata Party worker, was arrested for sharing a rather ridiculous meme featuring Mamata Banerjee.

Following the arrest, the issue became a matter of preserving press freedom because two other journalists, Eshika Singh and Anuj Shukla, were also arrested for broadcasting the video clip that accompanied Kanojia’s remarks, which were deemed objectionable. Three other people were reportedly arrested in relation to this case. The unconstitutional nature of these arrests brought the journalistic fraternity out onto the streets to demand the journalists’ immediate release.

Among the arsenal of laws that were brought in suo motu by the Uttar Pradesh police to build a case against Kanojia, Section 500 (criminal defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66 of the Information and Technology Act were central. The charge of causing public mischief under Section 505 was added later. Given the spectacular overreach demonstrated by the Lucknow police, it seems that an individual no longer has the right to criticise those in power. However, the Supreme Court upheld the right to free speech on the grounds that personal liberty cannot be compromised by any means. The Court’s decision, thus, set Kanojia free.

The cases of Kanojia and Sharma are only the most recent ones in a long history of people being penalised for mocking those in power. Earlier, it was only cartoonists and comedians who had this particular pleasure. Now, with social media, simply sharing something that mocks the powers that be constitutes adequate reason for persecution. In 2016, a teenager in Bhopal was arrested for sharing something ostensibly objectionable on Facebook. If a regular citizen shares a funny meme on social media that lampoons a political leader, they are exercising their freedom of thought and expression, which is a way of registering their dissent. In light of this, should it provoke such a draconian response from those being mocked if their claim to power is legitimate?

Laughter has offended the powerful all over the world throughout history. The emperor must not be laughed at, for he is above laughter, as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes showed us. Power can command immunity from ridicule. The powerful are afraid of laughter because it tends to reveal fallacies. Humour illuminates the difference between what one purports to be, and what one actually is. This light is unflattering, and has the ability to bring down the mighty.

That being said, laughter is a double-edged sword. If humour can be employed to bring the mighty down, it can also be employed to further disempower the oppressed. Historically, humour has been the monopoly of the powerful. Laughter against politically disempowered peoples was repeated till it crystallised into stereotypes that reinforced the status quo. Be it the portrayal of Jews and their “long noses” in Nazi Germany, or of the “effeminate Bengali” or the “brute Gorkha” in colonial India, humour was employed to otherise, and to strip the oppressed of dignity and diminish them further. Used in this way, its social purpose is to instil shame. It can therefore be a powerful cultural tool to enforce conformity by shaming what is perceived as transgressive behaviour.

Therefore, there is always a need to interrogate the politics of a joke. Kanojia had posted a video of an obviously distressed woman who was making a claim to Adityanath’s affections, based on which he made a joke directed at Adityanath. While such a video may have generated laughter, it also ended up being at the woman’s expense. This makes Kanojia’s attempted critique discriminatory and distasteful on many counts, because it lampoons her disprivilege and makes her all the more vulnerable. If one form of oppression is used to make a joke to critique another form of oppression, then that critique becomes illegitimate. Kanojia’s remarks can thus be faulted for being in bad taste, because he appropriates the distress of a woman to serve his own political project. While he does have the right to say it, it does not relieve him from the responsibility of using humour with sensitivity.

Did the Lucknow police, then, respond disproportionately to Kanojia’s remarks because they recognised the power of laughter? As it is, there is limited room for critique in political discourse today. With the scope for dissent shrinking, the oppressive structures of power will only be reinforced. One way to circumvent this problem is for the upholders of free speech to employ humour strategically, which could potentially diffuse the silence that power commands. In 1997, Steven Pinker had observed the equalising power of humour: “When scattered titters swell into a chorus of hilarity like a nuclear chain reaction, people are acknowledging that they have all noticed the same infirmity in an exalted target. A lone insulter would have risked the reprisals of the target, but a mob of them, unambiguously in cahoots in recognising the target’s foibles, is safe.”

If the laughter is contagious enough, then maybe the mighty will fall?

Updated On : 15th Jun, 2019

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