On love and laughter: Are these set to become scarce commodities in the country, and truth a casualty?

I am an elderly academic. I have never seen Kunal Kamra’s shows, and probably never will. Kamra is still less likely to read my pedantic articles. But let me reach out today to salute the man.

This is without reference to the charges he faces in the Supreme Court, or the judgment the learned judges might deliver. All decisions of the court deserve the deepest respect. But Kamra’s affidavit in the matter doesn’t read like one, more like an essay or blog. It gives the document a wider social relevance. The legal issue acquires a human dimension that every lay citizen can grasp.

Two of Kamra’s points are especially salient. First, he condemns a growing culture of intolerance, where ‘taking offence’ becomes a ‘fundamental right’ and a ‘national indoor sport’. (Why ‘indoor’? It invades the streets.) This diagnosis is confirmed by the highest authority: the Prime Minister, no less, has pilloried the tribe of andolanjeevis, professional protesters and agitators.

The PM finds them among farmers, lawyers, workers and students; but they occupy countless other arenas. They sniff out tenuous insults to faith, tribe or region with a sensitivity not apparent in their violent response. They are aroused by issues that leave most of their own cohort unfazed. Their zeal addresses personal matters like food and clothing, couples marrying across faiths, or young people falling in love.

It is this latter class of protests, which the PM did not cite, that leads at lynch mob level (physical or metaphorical) to open persecution and human suffering, and at campaign level to the greatest damage to civic life and property. But the most pernicious effect is to create deep clefts in society. This designed rupture of the community, pitting citizen against citizen, is about to culminate in a breathtaking scheme to enrol ‘cyber volunteers’ to report ‘anti-national’ posts on social media. How long before the exercise is extended to talk, including private conversation?

What society sets private citizens, even friends or relatives, to spy on one another? What kind of regime do we associate with such practices? The Indian state does not lack surveillance mechanisms, aided by a volunteer army of trolls. What can be the purpose of this new plan? How will our basic human exchanges, personal and social, survive the assault? We deplore a trust deficit in our society and polity. Will that distrust now invade our private space?

Even Kamra might find this no matter of jest. Yet the serious discussion of public issues is equally beleaguered. There are people appointed by society to carry out such analysis dispassionately, free from the pressures of office or gain. They are called scholars and scientists; they populate universities and research centres. Today these people find the free exercise of their pursuit in jeopardy.

A recent order mandates that every institution must clear with the Union government the topic and participants’ list of every online international conference, especially if it relates to India’s ‘internal matters’, as in some sense or other it commonly will. The Union government, like many states, enforces advance clearance of academic papers, sometimes influencing the content. IIT faculty must not write or say anything to ‘embarrass’ the institute vis-à-vis the government.

And disastrously for policy making, India’s proud tradition of statistical records is in jeopardy: Reports from the most estimable institutes can be delayed, reworked, or simply stalled. A chairman of the National Statistical Commission resigned after a report was suppressed – because, he said, ‘its findings are not matching the narrative articulated by the government’.

How then is India to engage with truth, or even experiment with it in Gandhi’s phrase? Must we be content with the empty fictions of post-truth – so much more attractive than the reality, drowning out the latter in public perception?

Hence seekers after truth take resort to jest. That is the second point to draw from Kamra. Jokes, like post-truth propaganda, belong to what he calls the ‘attention economy’: the more attention they get, the more credible they become. But propaganda is imposed on the people top-down: at some point, it hits the reality check of common experience. Jokes, on the contrary, are that reality check: They rise bottom up from the popular imagination.

They formed the groundswell of people’s protests against the ‘People’s Republics’ of the Soviet empire, a kind of dispersed resistance literature. Equally in post-Soviet Serbia, humour was a major non-violent weapon against the tyrant Milosevic.

Humour has its roots in common humanity. That humanity constitutes the nameless citizen’s silent, often unwitting critique of society. Because it infuses the masses, it is near-impossible to stamp out. That does not prevent the powerful from attempting to do so. The paradigm runs through our recent history, from collective movements that shook the nation to the retailed iniquities of the lynch mob.

A poem by Tagore describes what happens after the meditating Shiva, disturbed by the love-god Madana, burns up the latter: ‘O sanyasi (Tagore’s word), what have you done? By destroying the love-god, you have scattered his ashes across the world!’ His spirit now reigns everywhere: There is no escaping him.

Tagore does not say how Shiva reacted to this unintended fallout of his action. No doubt he returned to his meditation. But petty human gods, untouched by that spreading tide of love and humanity, might find there fresh fields for hatred and persecution.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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