The cartoon of a bishop in Kerala has turned into a ticklish matter for both church and state. Bishop Franco Mullakal is depicted as a rooster, his sceptre adorned with a pair of women’s underpants, a not-so-subtle reference to the recent rape charges against him.
The Kerala Lalithkala Akademi was appreciative and gave the cartoonist an award. The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council was less so, and demanded that it be withdrawn. To complicate matters, the bishop is shown dancing on a Kerala police cap, suggesting the indulgence of the state’s law enforcement agencies. The Left Front government on Wednesday asked the institution to reconsider the prize.
Institutions and leaders across the board seem to be regressing to a Victorian state of “we are not amused”. Take West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, incensed last month by an innocuous picture where her head was morphed on the body of a very camp Priyanka Chopra. The Supreme Court took a serious view of the episode as well. Although it ordered the release of Priyanka Sharma, the Bharatiya Janata Party worker held for posting the cartoon, it asked her to apologise for the levity.
Banerjee is a repeat offender. Back in 2012, she sniffed a “conspiracy” behind a cartoon circulated on email by a Jadavpur University professor and had him arrested. This was shortly after Trinamool Congress leader Dinesh Trivedi was unceremoniously replaced by Mukul Roy as state railways minister. The cartoon shows Roy, then a favourite with the chief minister, complaining about “dushtu lok [bad man]” Trivedi. “Dushtu Lok vanish,” replies a beaming Banerjee, echoing the villain from Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Shonar Kella. Since then, Roy has defected from the Trinamool, joined the BJP and played an important role in the party’s rise in Bengal. So the joke is still on Banerjee.
In Uttar Pradesh, you poke fun at Chief Minister Adityanath at your own peril. Journalist Prashant Kanojia, who was arrested last week for a “humorous” tweet, found out the hard way. Adityanath, who fashions himself as a yogi, or celibate monk, seems particularly thin skinned about jokes suggesting that he is married.
Countries across the world have seen the rise of the po-faced. On Tuesday, after a controversy about a depiction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the New York Times announced that it would stop publishing political cartoons in its international edition, to bring it in line with the domestic edition, though it would continue “investing in forms of Opinion journalism”. On Wednesday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority warned television channels against satirical content on political parties and law enforcement agencies, taking exception to animations, caricatures and funny memes. In Russia, cracking jokes may land you in the dock for “extremist crimes”.
As the dushtu lok crack down on laughter, it is clear they have one aim: to turn us all into “Ramgorurer chhana” or the children of Ramgorur. These mythical beings from a Bengali poem are forbidden to laugh, they refuse to laugh, they threaten to beat up anyone who laughs, they avoid trees and winds that might tickle them to laughter. For the house of Ramgorur is stuffed with scoldings, keeping laughter away.
Just kidding. Laughing in today’s world could invite something far worse than a scolding. For humour, it turns out, is the most dangerous form of dissent.