By K Raveendran
In a remarkable judgment Madras High Court’s justice G R Swaminathan this week upheld a persons’ ‘right to be funny’ and extolled the virtues of a new duty for the citizens: the ‘duty to laugh’.
Though written in a most light-hearted style and language, the verdict, however, dealt with one of the most weighty issues of contemporary politics: how national interest is being used to throttle good-natured outbursts and responses. The verdict could not have come at a more appropriate time when even gestures, leave alone written or spoken words, are being interpreted as attempts to wage war against the state and those involved being put behind bars with the branding of anti-national.
It may be just coincidence that while Justice Swaminathan was delivering his refreshingly different verdict, minister of state for home Nityanand Rai was informing parliament that the statute books did not have any reference to the term ‘anti-national’. The only time the term had found its way to the Constitution was during the dark period of Emergency, when a new insert was made through the 42nd constitutional amendment Act of 1976, defining ‘anti-national activities’. But in the 43rd constitutional amendment that followed it in the next year saw the entry being deleted, which means that as of today there is no reference to anti-national in the statute books.
The depth and seriousness of the issue involved in the case before him did not hold Justice Swaminathan back from writing a most lucid judgment, expressed in a highly endearing style. “if any satirist or cartoonist had authored this judgement, they would have proposed a momentous amendment to the Constitution of India to incorporate sub-clause (l) in Article 51-A…. To this, the hypothetical author would have added one more fundamental duty – duty to laugh.”
The case related to the police registering an FIR against a CPI-ML activist who uploaded vacation pictures with the caption ‘Trip to Sirumalai for shooting practice’, which the police interpreted as preparations to wage war against the state. Justice Swaminathan quashed the FIR against the 62-year-old accused while underscoring that the case was ‘absurd and an abuse of legal process’.
While noting that ‘being funny’ and ‘poking fun at another’ is different, the court stated that “Laugh at what?” is a serious question. The court also explained as to why the question becomes pertinent in the backdrop of regional diversity in India.
“…This is because we have holy cows grazing all over from Varanasi to Vadipatty (the place where the police registered the FIR). One dare not poke fun at them. There is however no single catalogue of holy cows. It varies from person to person and from region to region. A real cow, even if terribly underfed and emaciated, shall be holy in Yogi’s terrain. In West Bengal, Tagore is such an iconic figure that Khushwant Singh learnt the lesson at some cost. Coming to my own Tamil Desh, the all-time iconoclast “Periyar” Shri. E.V. Ramasamy is a super-holy cow. In today’s Kerala, Marx and Lenin are beyond the bounds of criticism or satire. Chhatrapati Shivaji and Veer Savarkar enjoy a similar immunity in Maharashtra. But all over India, there is one ultimate holy cow and that is “national security”.”
The judge added: ‘Paper warriors are also entitled to fantasise that they are Swadeshi Che Gueveras….Revolutionaries, whether real or phoney, are not usually credited with any sense of humour (or at least this is the stereotype). For a change, the petitioner tried to be funny. Perhaps it was his maiden attempt at humour.’
Whether it is Bhima Koregaon or the farmers agitation, Intolerance to criticism has been the trademark of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ever since it came to power in 2014. Terminologies that one was used to hearing during Emergency have crept back to routine political vocabulary, with the government showing rare sense of insecurity even towards the most innocuous remark or representation about the prevailing order. Ruling party and government bosses smelt foul about everything that was happening around as if they were intimidated by criticism. Any criticism of the government was taken as an affront to the state and branded as anti-national, though there was no such reference whatsoever in the statue books, as clarified by Modi’s own minister. In fact, national interest has become a tyrannical tool that can be used against anyone, any symbol or any representation. It is precisely this bogey that Justice Swamithanthan has exposed with such remarkable sophistication. (IPA Service)