It’s that time of the year again for Indians—the day we calculate our Gross Domestic Freedom or some such thingy. I won’t get into the math of it (apparently all numbers other than zero are anti-Hindu) but let’s just say that things are much more likely to be Gross than Free at the moment. Students, professors and activists are being thrown into the slammer. Covid-19 panic is being used as a cover to push dodgy ordinances. The national media has shrunk beyond recognition and its ethical standards can be adequately described with nothing more than a string of ROFL emojis. As for comedians—the “new journalists”, as some like to call them—they’re too busy hiding from marauding armies of online trolls to worry about anything beyond the next death threat.
Whenever critics point these things out, there are well-meaning contrarians, generally working at ‘think tanks’ (a moronic concept based on oxymoronic nomenclature, like ‘chessboxing’) who say that we should look at ‘the larger picture’. That India still has a nominally free press, that we still conduct large-scale elections in the proverbial ‘free and fair’ way. That we still hold on to that hallowed ideal of classical liberalism, freedom of expression—even if we have been quick to ban texts for vague stuff like “hurting sentiments”.
To them I ask: what have we Indians done with our #FoE (freedom of expression)? Have we come into our own as a culture of fearless truth-tellers or have we regressed into a nation of nod-along Noddys?
Do we, as a nation, encourage and support cartoonists, especially the outspoken political kind? It seems that every single article in praise of Indian political cartooning cites that same Abu Abraham Emergency-era caricature of Indira Gandhi as an angel, next to a caption that says “objective cartoon”. In contrast, too few of us are informed about how shamefully Indian cartoonists depicted Ambedkar during his lifetime (for a full account of this, read No Laughing Matter by Unnamati Syama Sundar)—in one cartoon, he was drawn as a female prostitute, sleeping her way to the top of India’s political system (women, Dalits and sex workers, all insulted in a ‘three-fer’). Today, the cartoon would’ve been subject to Article 17 of the Indian constitution (outlawing ‘untouchability’), the same constitution Ambedkar was tasked with framing.
And yet, if you ask even a reasonably well-informed Indian about cartooning and free speech, odds are they’ll say ‘Aseem Trivedi’ soon enough, referring to the asinine young cartoonist (and later, Bigg Boss contestant) who was arrested on sedition charges in 2012. At the time, I had written: “Aseem Trivedi is 25 years of age. His idea of artistic subtlety is to draw a pair of entwined unisex human forms (labeled ‘Politics’ and ‘Corruption’) sucking at each other’s privates with the legend “69- Favorite Position in India” emblazoned above them. Somebody somewhere should have had the common sense to realise that he is capable of offending only good taste.”
Have we come into our own as a culture of fearless truth-tellers or have we regressed into a nation of nod-along Noddys?
Literature, especially English-language writing, has scarcely fared any better. The Satanic Verses was written in the 1980s and it’s telling that when one talks about Indian books being censored, we have no future barnstormers to talk about—still good ol’ Satanic Verses. Not one Death of an Anarchist, not one The Plot Against America—hell, not even a passable Peyton Place. Oh, and as for freedom of expression, in the 1920s, decades before Rushdie, the Arya Samaj had published an anti-Muslim propaganda book called ‘Rangila Rasool’, basically a malicious character assassination of the Prophet Muhammad (he is painted as a lewd, incorrigible skirt-chaser). It was written and circulated with the express purpose of provoking communal clashes—and was eventually banned by the British Indian government.
Does Bollywood deserve rights at all, much less the right to run its potty mouth at the expense of vulnerable groups? It’s wild how much Bollywood films would get away with, as late as the 90s and the mid-2000s. Amrish Puri played a Fu Manchu-like caricature called General Dong (yes) in the 1992 film Tahalka (starring Dharmendra, Shammi Kapoor et al). He had the slit-eyes, the Fu Manchu moustache, spoke in the squeakiest of fake voices and liked to button his sentences with “Dong kabhi wrong nahi hotaa!” Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla both donned similar ‘yellowface’ disguises for a scene in One Two Ka Four (2001). In the last couple of years alone, Gully Boy, Super 30 and Bala have used actors in ‘brownface’ or more accurately, ‘dirtface’ (because in India, poor characters are not just dark-skinned, they are also shown to be dirty, disheveled, incapable of personal hygiene).
When was the last time the big guys in Bollywood threw their money behind a real underdog story (sorry, Gully Boy’s wide-eyed cluelessness doesn’t count)? Are they not, then, wasting #FoE? Some of you might think that my complaints are not very important at all—or not nearly as important as speaking about the erosion of free speech. While that might be the case, consider this: if free speech is on a clock, so to speak, shouldn’t we get our last hurrahs in right about now?
Unless, of course, you’re an Indian stand-up comedian, in which case #FoE only exists for the trolls unleashed upon your various social media accounts. Ministers may then exercise their right to free speech through no-fly orders, or publicly delivered threats of punitive action. Free speech can be a hoot, I suppose, but in India it’s more like an inside joke.