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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.