Even India’s most powerful man is scared to make jokes

Taking a joke.
Taking a joke.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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In a country that is consistently losing its sense of humor, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is scared of making jokes because of the country’s media.

“I have a humorous side but these days humor can be a risky thing,” Modi said during his first-ever interview with a private news channel in India as a prime minister today (June 27). ”In this era of 24/7 news channels, anybody can lift a small word and make a big issue out of it.”

Modi’s comments are a bit ironic. After all, it is the prime minister and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allies who have been censoring humor in the country.

Take, for example, comedy collective All India Backchod (AIB), which has been threatened by politicians and police investigations multiple times in the last couple of years since Modi came to power. The collective has been charged with using inappropriate language—despite clear warnings of adult content. The group has also been fiercely criticized for hurting people’s sentiments by creating a parody—a widely accepted art form.

In January, television comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested twice for mimicking self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

Even the mildest criticism of Modi or his initiatives attracts threats of death and rape from Modi’s supporters on social media. Hell has no fury like Modi’s online followers, often referred to as bhakts (devotees), who are ready with enraged blowback at any critique.

In June 2015, television actor Shruti Seth voiced her opinion of Modi’s #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, calling him a “selfie obsessed” prime minister. The “floodgates of hell opened,” she said about the online trolling she faced in response to her comments. ”I was subjected to a tsunami of hate tweets. 48 hours of non-stop trolling. The tweets were targeted at me, my family, my ‘Muslim’ husband, my 11-month-old daughter and, of course, my non-existent, dwindling, no-good career as an actor,” Seth wrote in an open letter on July 5, 2015.

Besides humor and criticism, even the realistic portrayal of situations in cinema has been stifled by Modi’s allies.

Bollywood crime thriller Udta Punjab, which is based on the narcotics problem faced by the northern Indian state of Punjab, did not get a clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), headed by chairman Pahlaj Nihalani—a self-confessed Modi chamcha (acolyte). It was finally cleared for release by the Bombay High Court.

The censor board’s opposition to the film has been linked to its release just a few months before elections in Punjab, which is currently ruled by BJP-ally Shiromani Akali Dal.

Despite such incidents, it’s Modi who is “in fear” of making any humorous public comment because “even if you mention a proverb, they will connect it with something else and begin a conversation. The one who is saying the proverb does not know for what he is speaking,” he told Times Now news channel.