The Importance of Being Irreverent

Irreverent:

A lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously (Oxford English Dictionary)

Not showing the expected respect for official, important, or holy things (Cambridge Dictionary)

We live in truly dystopian times. Times when an M.F. Husain is exiled from his country for his art, a Wendy Doniger has her book pulped for apparently blasphemous content, a Perumal Murugan is hounded out of his town by outraged religious-caste groups and a Gauri Lankesh pays for her writings with her life. Apart from these, we have had valuable manuscripts in a research institute in Pune destroyed because of the apparently derogatory reference to a major historical figure and violent protests against a movie which depicted a queen who was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. That all this has happened in the past couple of decades is a sorry testimony to the depletion of a sense of proportion in a country where the population has thrived on a rich diet of multicultural jokes and where poking fun at communities and important public figures has been a staple component of Indian democracy.

These developments are hard to stomach for many of us who were reared on community jokes and developed a capacity to extract a good laugh out of any situation. We started young and at home: my father would keep us kids in splits with his imitations of office colleagues, relatives and prominent politicians. The school environment was equally refreshing: we played football with our principal, an Irish brother complete in his cassock, and revelled in his one-liners and his ability to wake up a somnolent noontime classroom by sweeping all our geometry boxes off our tables.

But our irreverence was well and truly honed by the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Rags like Kooler Talk and Spice indulged in sly satire and societies like the Wodehouse Society exposed an entire generation to how humour could be gently used to expose the asininity and foibles of the nobs of British society. Direct action was also forthcoming, as when tomatoes were hurled in protest at the participants in a fashion show and when that parliamentarian par excellence, Piloo Mody, was pelted with pieces of chapati when he entered the college mess prior to a late evening session with college students. Our riotousness continued during our post-graduation phase in the Delhi School of Economics: the male members of the class turned up in lungis for a morning class in econometrics. Unfazed by this, the venerable Professor continued as if nothing had happened. Our PG class also started SPOSIDS (Society for the Preservation Of Sanity In Delhi School) to counter what we saw as a curriculum that was out of touch with the real world.

This refusal to take life seriously was maintained after entering the portals of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The targets were politicians and pompous senior officers who took themselves a bit too seriously. Peccadilloes of officers and politicians were the staple at gatherings of younger officers. Along with this there was a certain scepticism about the zeal shown by the powers that be for their pet programmes. It was recognised that politicians were in the game for continued access to power and the bureaucracy for the collateral benefits of glory, perks and prestige, and, increasingly, rentier income. Since flippant notings on musty files were frowned upon, gossip sessions over innumerable cups of canteen chai with one’s colleagues and bosses provided opportunities to laugh over the shenanigans of ministers and other politicians.

Having grown up in and been exposed to such an environment throughout one’s student and working life, I feel a deep sense of sadness today on seeing the barrage of hatred and abuse that accompanies any attempt at humour. Like Irish and Russian jokes, we had our existence enlivened by gentle barbs at Sardarjis, Bengalis, Parsis and Malayalis. Cut to the present and, if we are fortunate not to be lynched electronically or physically, we can look forward to a court summons from distant Guwahati or Bhubaneswar: if you don’t believe me, see what Abhijit Iyer-Mitra had to face for his admittedly silly comments on a particular state and its religious icons.

The quality of irreverence is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Go back to the middle ages and you have astronomers facing the threat of the stake for venturing to claim that the earth moved around the sun, refuting Ptolemaic wisdom. Christian Europe moved through the Reformation to the Enlightenment only because of a questioning attitude to life. Soviet Russia and its satellites were toppled by the growing irreverence of their citizens, who were heartily sick of the ideological diet that they had been fed for between forty to seventy years. And Indian democracy has been immeasurably enriched by the likes of Shankar, Laxman and Abu, who exposed the foibles and failings of politicians with their cartoons — Pandit Nehru invited Shankar to make fun of him. Contrast this with China or North Korea, where a hearty laugh has probably not been heard for decades.

So what has gone wrong in India? Why have we started taking ourselves so seriously? The demise of humour was heralded, ironically, at a time when the Indian economy seemed to have finally cast off its somnolence and started to acquire some dynamism. Growth was booming, the middle-class Indian had started to extend his/her reach to distant Silicon Valley and women were (at least in urban settings) increasingly asserting their independence. Patriarchal attitudes were, however, not going to accept defeat so easily. The threatened Indian male ego retreated into the world of religious chauvinism and misogyny to protect its position. Liberalism and gender equality were seen as threats to the existing traditional order. Established social norms were slow to adapt to the changed economic environment. The situation was exacerbated by a growing divide between groups — educational, digital and economic.

A moribund education system has seen a young population going through school and college without receiving “education” as such, if by education one means the ability to use reason and employ critical and analytical thinking to assess issues. A crucial reason for this has been the gradual demise of liberal education, grounded in the realities of society. Add to this the preponderance of technical and management courses with multiple-choice questions and you have a generation which cannot present cogent arguments in essay form. With most jobs not requiring analytical abilities and with the WhatsApp-Twitter era in full swing, pithy bytes are more popular than lengthy written discourses. It is easier to spew vituperative bile when one has only 260 characters to play around with.

While one may understand, even if not stomach, the growing expression of intolerance by India’s “educated” classes, what causes more dismay are the responses of institutions charged with protecting the right to freedom of expression. The highest court of the land refused to stay the arrest of a journalist by the Odisha government. Granted, this person shoots off his mouth intemperately, but forty days in the jug for a minor misdemeanour was rather harsh. As if that was not enough,  the Indian government (run by whichever party is in power in any state) tends to throw the rule book at any dissenter. If the charge of criminal defamation fails to stick, the government moves on to imposing the far graver charge of sedition. When even this accusation seems flimsy and liable to rejection by the courts, governments take recourse to the sledgehammer of the National Security Act, as experienced recently by a Manipuri journalist,  whose only crime was to refer disparagingly to the Chief Minister. Of course, as a last resort, governments can use the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which enables long periods of incarceration of the accused while the wheels of justice grind agonizingly slowly.

All these developments over the past two decades have seen censorship (both by the self and by others in authority) cast its ominous dark shadow over the democratic landscape. It takes threats from just a few crazed fanatics for an author to stop writing, a filmmaker to rewrite a script, a university to withdraw a teaching assignment to a reputed scholar or a journalist or a dissenter to face assault culminating in murder.

The attack on perceived “irreverence” has adverse implications for creativity, with deleterious consequences for the development of the economy and society. Newton, Darwin and Einstein would never have made their path breaking discoveries if they had been nervously looking over their shoulders all the time for potential assailants. More critically, it contributes to damaging the delicate framework of checks and balances that are the bulwark of a democratic society, leading to irreparable damage to institutions. If civil servants cannot freely give dissenting opinions, police officers cannot crack down on offenders, judges cannot give judgments unpalatable to the political bosses of the day and academics cannot critically examine the policies of the government, that day is not far when a sheep like, adoring population is persuaded to jettison democracy for the charms of an all-powerful leader. We must let that prescient lawmaker, B.R. Ambedkar, have the final words “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.

 

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. With the fading away of that post-colonial generation of stalwarts, power has sadly moved into the hands of lesser mortals across the world.

    Proving Nasrin’s Second Law: If you give a small man big power, he WILL misuse it.

    Reply

  2. Nasrin’s First Law: A cliche is the shortest distance between two bureaucrats.

    Nothing personal 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: