Free Expression

The emperor’s clothes: BJP files police complaint against journalist whose tweet mocked Modi

Making fun of people in power is a sacred right in a democracy. The BJP's moves to restrict it are alarming.

“Every joke is a tiny revolution,” observed British novelist George Orwell in 1945 with characteristic perspicacity. People have always mocked the powerful, either through prose, poetry, theatre or – most brutally ­– jokes about their body functions. To these analogue forms of humour, we’ve now added more digital equivalents ­– for example, this compilation of 24 Photoshopped images of US President Barack Obama.

In most liberal democracies, political humour is tolerated, even encouraged. Obama isn’t going to get in a flap because someone had a laugh at his expense.

Bad sport

The Bharatiya Janata Party, though, has a different attitude to this. On Monday, Arvind Gupta, the head of the BJP’s information and technology cell, said that the party had filed a complaint against Raghav Chopra for an image the journalist had tweeted. The photo depicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi bending down to touch the feet of man wearing a thobe, the national dress of Saudi Arabia. The image looked obviously morphed and Chopra tweeted it out with the sarcastic tweet, “Will someone tell me what’s Modi ji doing in Saudi. Can’t be what it looks like surely."

The image so galled the government that no less a person than the minister of state for information and broadcasting threatened to send the tweet to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to “review the violations”.

Modi's recent trip to Saudi Arabia and his closeness to the Saudis has been criticised as well as mocked. This is simply what Chopra was doing. Yet, this act of political humour has been treated as something criminal by India’s ruling party.

A sea of doctoring

This kind of pressure is a significant danger to our freedom of expression. Besides, morphed photos and doctored videos are now so pervasive, to pick on one simply because it mocks a leader seems hypocritical in the extreme. In the recent Jawaharlal Nehru University fracas, doctored videos aired by news channels provoked arrests and violence in the heart of Delhi. But no action was taken against the channels that broadcast the manipulated footage. At the same time, a tweet from a fake account even fooled the Delhi Police and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh into thinking the protest by students at JNU had the backing of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.

In fact, doctored images might actually have played a role helping the BJP win the national election in 2014 itself. During the campaign, social media was flooded with fake images of Chinese cities purporting to be Gujarat or Narendra Modi ostensibly sweeping the floor – to show his humble origins. As recently as December 2015, the government's Press Information Bureau had itself tweeted out a Photoshopped image of the prime minister conducting an aerial survey of a flooded Chennai.

After its own sins of commission, for India’s ruling party to haul up a private citizen for cracking a joke about a politician borders on the surreal.

Signs of totalitarianism

As social scientists have noted, the strict policing of comedy is one of the most definite sign of totalitarianism. In the 1930s, the citizens of Nazi Germany coined a new term for subversive humour: Flüsterwitze, whisper joke – since they obviously couldn’t be told out loud. Citizens of the USSR even went so far as to invent a new type of joke, anekdoti, passed orally, which poked fun at the bleak life that Stalinism had to offer.

Publicly ribbing leaders, politicians and the powerful is one of the most enduring barometers we have of freedom and liberty. History teaches us that societies that criminalise political humour almost always go on to pull rather more brutal pranks on their own members.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.