The Big Story: Stifling expression
If you are a comedian, making jokes about the Union government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could jeopardise your career. That was the message that went out when Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, on Saturday withdrew permission given to organisers to use an auditorium for a show by comedian Kunal Kamra. Kamra, who became a YouTube star in the aftermath of demonetisation, is known for his incisive observations about the policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party government and the Hindutva groups that support it.
Vice Chancellor Parimal Vyas directed the auditorium to cancel Kamra’s show following a representation made by 11 former students of the public university. Their letter to the vice chancellor claimed that Kamra was an “anti-national flagbearer”. It criticised him for allegedly “mimicking” the national anthem and supporting the “tukde tukde gang”, a phrase that has gained currency in some circles as a way of describing people allegedly working to splinter India. In reality, the term has now become shorthand for anyone who is critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party government.
The decision to cancel Kamra’s show demonstrates the eagerness of the university administration to appease the party in power. University officials offered a weak excuse for their decision: they said that the show had been cancelled becaused they feared for the security of the venue. But it isn’t clear whether they made any efforts to seek police help to contain these potential protests. Instead, vague accusations made in a letter appear to have been treated as a credible threat.
This is not the first time public officials have acted to curb artistic freedom, based on the complaints of irrelevant third parties. In July last year, members of the comedy group All India Bakchod were booked by the Mumbai police for criminal defamation for posting on Twitter a meme about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The police had swung into action following a complaint by a Twitter users.
In many cases, the courts have intervened decisively in favour of the artists. But public officials seem to care very little about the impact of such arbitrary action. While the university may have signalled made those in power by cancelling the show, the chilling effect such decisions have on freedom of expression will leave the country poorer.
The Big Scroll
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