“Every joke is a tiny revolution,” observed British novelist George Orwell in 1945 with characteristic perspicacity.
People have always mocked the powerful, either through prose, poetry, theatre or—most brutally—jokes about their body functions. To these analogue forms of humour, we’ve now added more digital equivalents—for example, this compilation of 24 photoshopped images of US president Barack Obama.
In most liberal democracies, political humour is tolerated, even encouraged. Obama isn’t going to get in a flap because someone had a laugh at his expense.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though, has a different attitude.
On Monday, Arvind Gupta, head of the BJP’s information and technology cell, said that the party had filed a complaint against journalist Raghav Chopra for an image he had tweeted. The photo depicted prime minister Narendra Modi bowing to touch the feet of a man wearing a Thobe, the national dress of Saudi Arabia. The image looked obviously morphed and Chopra tweeted it with the sarcastic comment, “Will someone tell me what’s Modi ji doing in Saudi. Can’t be what it looks like surely.”
The image so galled the government that no less a person than the minister of state for information and broadcasting threatened to send the tweet to his own ministry to “review the violations”.
Modi’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia and his closeness to the Saudis has been criticised as well as mocked. This is simply what Chopra was doing. Yet, this act of political humour has been treated as something criminal by India’s ruling party.
A sea of doctoring
This kind of pressure is a significant danger to our freedom of expression. Besides, morphed photos and doctored videos are now so pervasive that to pick on one simply because it mocks a leader seems hypocritical in the extreme.
In the recent the Jawaharlal Nehru University fracas, doctored videos aired by news channels provoked arrests and violence in the heart of Delhi. But no action was taken against the channels that broadcast the manipulated footage. At the same time, a tweet from a fake account even fooled the Delhi police and union home minister Rajnath Singh into thinking that the protest by students at JNU had the backing of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.
In fact, doctored images might actually have played a role in helping the BJP win the national election in 2014. During the campaign, social media was flooded with fake images of Chinese cities purporting to be Gujarat or Narendra Modi ostensibly sweeping the floor—to show his humble origins. As recently as December 2015, the government’s press information bureau had itself tweeted a photoshopped image of the prime minister conducting an aerial survey of a flooded Chennai.
After its own sins of commission, for India’s ruling party to haul up a private citizen for cracking a joke about a politician borders on the surreal.
Signs of totalitarianism
As social scientists have noted, the strict policing of comedy is one of the most definite sign of totalitarianism. In the 1930s, the citizens of Nazi Germany coined a new term for subversive humour: Flüsterwitze, whisper joke—since they obviously couldn’t be told out loud. Citizens of the USSR even went so far as to invent a new type of joke, anekdoti, passed orally, which poked fun at the bleak life that Stalinism had to offer.
Publicly ribbing leaders, politicians, and the powerful is one of the most enduring barometers we have of freedom and liberty. History teaches us that societies that criminalise political humour almost always go on to pull rather more brutal pranks on their own members.