The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you?” In countries like ours where politicians chants slogans like go corona go, where people are advised to drink cow urine, and politicians go on to comment that when there is no electricity, there is nothing else to do but produce babies, do we really require a different comedy industry? In a time when politicians are taking on the role of comedians, it only makes sense for the latter to speak about politics. Indian comedy has therefore been inundated with political humour or satire in the last several months. However, this political satire has been a tough road, especially under the Modi-led government, which is notorious for stifling dissent. Cases of sedition have been filed against comedians and others for criticising the government or the governing party. One certain way to end yourself in prison, or at the very least being harassed by an army of cyber-trolls, is to engage in a political parody on the internet. Certainly, today’s satirists have to be more daring than their occupation should generally need them to be. All this suppression of voice raises a plethora of questions To what extent should people be charged with crimes based on the mere fact that they have posted jokes and other satirical content on the internet when it is quite clear mens rea, which is a sin qua non for crime is absent? Is arresting for making humorous comments violates freedom of speech under Article 19.
“An institution is only as good as the people who govern it. If it takes a comedian to make us think seriously about these issues, then so be it. Another one of the cruel jokes of the world’s largest democracy perhaps”
Can we laugh at, make jokes about anything and everything? What about restrictions on what we can laugh about? After all, comedy is merely a subset of our larger repertory of free expression, and, in the form of satire, it is very much part of the free speech allowed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution of 1950. Defining the parameters of the right to freedom of speech and expression Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of speech would encompass both artistic and commercial speech, which must be safeguarded. Further, In S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram,it was held that everyone has a fundamental right to form and express their views on any matter of public concern. Criticism of Government policies and activities should not be used as a pretext for censoring speech. Everyone in a democracy is not obligated to sing the same tune. Thus, at the very core of democracy lies the freedom of the artist to portray society however he or she chooses. Recently in the case of Ashutosh Dubey v Netflix, Inc & Ors. Supreme court held that satire is one of the most effective ways of exposing societal evils. That is precisely what stand-up comedians do. In their depiction of society, they employ sarcasm and satire and further exaggerate societal flaws to the point of mockery.
Article 19 is not an absolute right as Article 19(2)of the Constitution of India ‘imposes reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression on specific grounds.However, these grounds are being used as a weapon to throttle the dissent. The humour is being restricted by the unjust use of these reasonable grounds at the expense that the court provides no clear-cut definition, inviting subjectivity and greatly different readings and application. Due to this uncertainty, a clear line of demarcation cannot be made about what is condemnable and leaving it upon the authorities to be as arbitrary and capricious as they like in booking people and restricting their freedom of speech, ultimately casting a chilling effect on free speech as in such situation, a person who is under fear of criminal sanction, will not be able to exercise their right of free speech freely.
Further, In Shri Ashwani Dhir And Ors. v. The State Of Bihar And Ors, it was held that even the most vicious satire on a political leader, which has no propensity to incite public unrest, cannot be suppressed. But again, the word tendency is so wide and broad that tendency has a different interpretation for different people. Another prime example is when Stand-up Comedian Munawar Faruqui. had to cancel his show as police have “advised” the organizers to call it off, citing possible law and order situations. Under the garb of public order, his last 12 shows have been canceled, ultimately making him want to quit the comedy industry altogether.
Comedy has also come under the strict scrutiny of Sedition. Cartoonists and stand-up comedians face the brunt of their work whenever they criticise the government or endeavour to speak anything against the ruling party. Recently this was expressed when Rahul Bajaj described an environment of fear and intolerance, saying that if we want to criticise the government openly, there is no confidence that they will take that in a positive way as constructive criticism. Further, the National Crime Records Bureau data indicates that even though sedition cases have seen a massive 163 percent jump since 2014, the conviction rate has dropped to a mere 3 percent. This clearly indicates that the police and related state authorities misuse and exploit the sedition laws to arbitrarily terrorize the public and put an end to any criticism or opposition of the government, thus instilling a chilling effect. In addition, Sedition is a cognizable and non-bailable offence. So by the time the courts step in to apply the principle to the facts of the case, citizens have already served a significant time in prison. This way, fear of imprisonment is instilled among the public, causing them to think twice before voicing their criticism.
In Disha A. Ravi vs. State (Nct Of Delhi) & Ors.Court held that the government cannot put citizens “behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies” and “the offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.” Another problem is that nowadays, politicians and political party equates themselves with the government. A speech will fall under sedition only if it is made against the government as an institution, not against political leaders. However, the recent surge in sedition cases clearly shows its misuse and growing political intolerance. If every dissent and political satire is penalised for sedition, India cannot be said to be a democracy in the true sense.
In 21st century India, we are facing an onslaught on freedom of speech and expression in India, where comedians like Munnawar Faruqui are imprisoned for jokes they have not uttered, and students are being probed for sedition. Artists are no strangers to criticism. However, there is nothing more insidious when this criticism manifests itself as insults, rape threats, claims of sedition, slander, and a symbol of anti-nationalism, which exposes the widespread intolerance in society and politics. Hence the need of the hour is that artists should be allowed to criticise the government or their policies as it is just one’s personal opinion which they in no way are forcing on anyone else; politicians need to increase their tolerance levels and let go off the jokes as they come. Further judiciary needs to review and assess sedition and provide a demarcation line regarding reasonable grounds of restriction. Even If these provisions cannot be repealed, toning them down and providing rigorous restrictions to prevent their indiscriminate application would strengthen India’s democratic standing and protect freedom of expression in the country.
Author(s) Name: Tanvi Garg (Army Institute of Law, Mohali)
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