Author: Aarushi Chawla
Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Delhi
Internet is one of the most useful innovation for the people in India as we have already seen education would have taken a full stop in Covid times if there had been lack of internet services. As soon as social media stepped in, socialization and interaction across the globe began and soon turned into a medium for sharing thoughts and views.
Comedy is one of the biggest user-generated and shared content. Comedy can be in form of tweets, videos, cartoons and what all matters is to make others happy. Despite of this, comedy serves an important function that is, it questions, imitates and ridicules state violence. To say it better, comedy is an intelligent expression of dissent. But what all offends the nation is not the humour on middle class or education or markets, what pokes an offence is political comedy. In the words of Chaplin “In the creation of comedy, it’s paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance,”. It seems he was aware that dissent comes with fear and thereby he decided to react to it by political satire.
What needs to be seen is that can a joke or a social media post lead to grave offences along with arrest and seizure of the fundamental rights of citizens relating to freedom of speech and expression enriched under article 19(1)(a).[i]
COMEDY: A TROUBLE
The instances of comedy putting people into trouble is not a new concept.
In the year 2012, cartoonist Azeem Trivedi was arrested on a complaint by a lawyer[ii]. His cartoon depicted the parliament as a giant commode and showed the national emblem with wolves instead of lions with the caption “Wolfs with the Sign of Danger”.It also read Bhrashtameva Jayate instead of Satyameva Jayate. His acts werealleged to spread anger and hatred against the state and as a result he was arrested for sedition under section 124A of I.P.C. The division bench headed by Justices DY Chandrachud and Amjad Sayyed[iii] observed that, “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comments, till the time he doesn’t incite people to commit violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of maintaining public disorder. This section aims at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended or would have a tendency to generate disorder or disturbance of public peace by resorting to violence. Cartoons or caricatures are visual representations, words or signs which tend to have a component of wit, humour or sarcasm.”
Further the Bombay high court held the arrest arbitrary and noted that freedom of speech and expression is available to every citizen along with right to express his/her indignation against corruption in the political system and cartoons did not display any incitement to violence or the tendency or the intention to create public disorder.
In another instance in the year 2017, Tanmay Bhat was booked and an FIR was registered under section 500 of I.P.C and Section 67 of IT Act, 2000. He was booked on a tweet due to a meme on Prime Minister Narendra modi with snapchat dog filter.[iv]
The list doesn’t end here. In July 2020, comedian Agrima Joshua received few rape threats and abuses on a video of hers which showed her making jokes about the Maharashtra government’s Shivaji statue project in the Arabian Sea.[v] It seems frightening that now the stand-up comedians need to worry about being punched on jawlines rather than punch lines.
However, time and by the courts have stood up against this political intolerance in a catena of cases. In Vishesh Verma v. State of Bihar[vi], where allegations of defamation were made out against the persons involved in the production of the serial as the characters had a resemblance to the family of a former Chief Minister of Bihar, therein single bench of Patna high court made remarkable observations that a creative artist is free to portray the picture of society or the political system or the person in politics as per the manner he perceives it. They can make satire of political leaders but the same is subject to morality, decency and public order. That said, it is to be within confined limits. The legitimate creation or the laws cannot be used to suppress the dissent by the artist just because of mere intolerance by super sensitive people. It was said that dissent is the essence of democracy and we all profess to live in a democratic country.
In May 2018, the Madras High Court ruled in favour of Tamil cartoonist Karna in a case filed by DMK legislators on grounds on criminal defamation. The court upheld the right to laugh and observed that there is no doubt that law has to come to the rescue of a person who feels defamed. But then the laws are made from the perspective of a reasonable person and not a touchy and hyper-sensitive individual just like the respondent.[vii]
The above cases present a realistic idea that the laws at present are not capable of handling internet comedy at all. Charges of sedition, defamation, and especially section 295A of I.P.C are broad enough to include humour within it. There is a thin line between freedom of speech, expression and comedy, whereas, the growing intolerance is the real problem not the humour.
As is rightly noted by the Supreme Court in the case of Indibily Creative (P) Ltd. v. State of West Bengal [viii] that intolerance has been growing in the country. What is meant by intolerance is people are unwilling to accept the rights of others which undermines the right to free portrayal of their ideas. The court noted that certain groups pose a danger to the universal right of freedom of speech and expression. Every such intolerance must be balanced with the inalienable freedom of the people. The people in power need to be conscious of the fact that our country is a democracy.
There is no doubt that comedy should not hurt anyone’s sentiments but the reasonableness of the same should be judged from the point of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men and not those of weak and vacillating minds.[ix]
Comedy should be given a higher degree of freedom as it is not merely jokes but a way to express views as it has a bigger reach than any other form of speech and expression. Mere disagreement with the government cannot amount to sedition.[x] However, the negative side of humour cannot be ignored that might be used to defame, harass or bully someone.
[i] Shreya singhal v. Union of India, (2013) 12 SCC 73 [ii]Satire or sedition? Political cartoons in India | Free Speech Debate [iii] Sanskar Marathe v. State of Maharashtra, 2015 SCC Online Bom 587 [iv]Mumbai police file FIR against AIB's Tanmay Bhat for meme on PM Modi - Oneindia News [v]Mumbai: Comedian Agrima Joshua apologises for joke about Shivaji statue (scroll.in) [vi] (2008) 56 (2) BLJR 1773 [vii] http://www.livelaw.in/a-cartoonist-must-be-able-to-work-without-any-inhibition-madras-hc-quashes-complaint-against-cartoon-portraying-dmk-members-as-monkeys-read-order/ [viii](2020) 12 SCC 436 [ix]State of Maharashtra v. Sangharaj Damodar Rupawate, (2010) 7 SCC 398 [x] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/disagreeing-with-govt-is-not-sedition-says-sc-101614809724448.html