The drama over the arrest of comedian-actor Kiku Sharda over allegations that he hurt the sentiments of the followers of self-proclaimed messiah Gurmit Ram Rahim has kicked off a debate on the limits of free speech in the Indian democracy. More importantly, the incident has highlighted the need for a relook at how law treats such complaints in this regard and why it only chooses soft targets to act against.
The actor in question in this case went through a rather eventful day on Wednesday. Kiku Sharda, a noted comedian and actor, was arrested and released by the Haryana police only to be detained and released again. His crime - mimicking the Dera Sacha Sauda chief during a New Year ceremony organised by a television network.
The Dera chief, who later ‘accepted' the comedian's apology for the act before he was released, elicits no less humour himself – especially for his Bollywood escapades. But let's leave all that aside for now.
The issue that needs to be addressed here is whether the ferocity shown by the Haryana police cops to arrest the actor matched the gravity of his crime. Individuals who rose to criticise Kiku's arrest believe the action by the police as absurd. Ram Rahim's followers, on the other hand, think otherwise. However, the actor was arrested and was even faced with the threat of a 14-day prison.
There are some pertinent questions that this entire incident raises. After all, wasn't the actor only enacting a scripted performance the way his producers wanted him to? If at all the law applies to Kiku for his ‘offence', should it not apply equally to the production house and the broadcasters who telecast the event? Aren't they as guilty as the actor, if not more?
Similar incidents in the not-so-distant past point to similar anomalies. Earlier this month, an Andhra court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. A morphed photograph of the cricketer was portrayed as Lord Vishnu by on the cover page of Business Today magazine's April 2013 issue. The image shows the cricketer holding several products, including a shoe in one of his hands. “God of big deals” was the caption for the photograph.
And then we see a contrast where a similar incident did not draw the kind of prompt action that Indian authorities showed in arresting Kiku. All it elicited was a few raised eyebrows. Just this week, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos was shown as Lord Vishnu on the cover page of the latest issue of international business magazine Fortune. Bezos was portrayed as the Hindu deity, complete with a lotus in one hand and the Amazon logo on the palm of the other. The caption read: “Amazon invades India”.
We are yet to hear of any case being registered against Bezos or the publication in this regard, though it did draw the ire of many for the creative output.
So, are laws being used to satisfy the whims of a selective few who do not happen to have a taste for humour? True, freedom of expression cannot be absolute – you can't go about town slandering any individual. But then, would the law have applied so promptly if a common man would have faced ridicule? Probably not!
Gurmeet Ram Rahim's supporters felt ‘offended' by a dance skit that the actor performed for a media network's event. But then, aren't film personalities and politicians mimicked too? The self-styled godman has also staked his claim in the film world with his larger than life movies. What then explains such selective rage?
Such abrupt bursts of action in the name of law signify another pressing question. Where does one draw the line? More importantly, who decided the limits and on what grounds? The AIB roast hosted in Mumbai last year drew the ire of authorities in Maharashtra for its vulgar content and was banned from online streaming. Fair point, though Indians in today's time and age do not like to be told what they can watch and what they can't. However, even the organisers were pulled up there. The same law does not seem to have happened in Kiku's case.
The moot point is that satire in India has not evolved and there are no clear definitions of what it constitutes. The same applies for freedom of expression. Probably, we need to understand that there is an undefined line that separates comedy from slander. Probably the law needs to get a drift of it too.
Selective targeting of soft targets in the name of law needs to end. Moreover, satire and mimckery is comedy and should be treated as such.