Over the past few days, several prominent Indian comedians have been called out on social media for casteist jokes they have made in the past. Some people have asked why they are being criticised for routines that were performed several years ago. Their defenders say that these comedians have evolved since then and discarded the regressive attitudes that underpin their jokes.

This lack of empathy is a result of the privileged isolation upper-caste Hindus like me have been bestowed with.

There is a difference in joking about the powerful and the powerless.

When we joke about the corruption or immorality of politicians, we are “punching up”. The target of our comedy is someone more powerful than us. In a world where the scales are forever tilted towards the one percent, comedy routines of this sort restore the balance in our culture. They are also an effective way of holding our leaders accountable.

On the other hand, when people make casteist, sexist or Islamaphobic jokes, they are “punching down”. The subjects of these jokes might be incompetent in their own way – be they politicians who exploit their popularity, doctors who seem less than competent or religious fanatics who use dogma to instigate violence.

The problem arises when their incompetence is linked with their larger social identities as members of groups that have traditionally been marginalised. Men joking about their wife’s driving might seem funny if viewed in isolation. But if this premise is linked to their spouse’s gender and becomes a generalisation about all women drivers, it forms the basis of every misogynistic WhatsApp forward ever.

Similarly, it is not merely distasteful but downright dangerous for savarna men to make jokes targetting people from bahujan groups and the reservation system put into place to rectify the centuries of oppression faced by members of marginalised groups.

‘Offensiveness’ as a measure of comedic worth

There has been a counterargument that the more offensive a joke is, the more truthful it is. Both this line of logic – and the people who are employing it in the defence of immature comments – are symptoms of the problem at hand.

English comedian Ricky Gervais routinely makes fun of religious people in his stand-up routines. He is considered to be one of the funniest comedians in the world, as well as one of the most offensive ones. But he is an essential case study when it comes to distinguishing between “punching up” and “punching down”. For Gervais, it’s always about dismantling privilege.

Traditional religious orders have been oppressors for centuries. He makes fun of both the powerful and the powerless who are engaged in a theologically-approved system of exploitation. Yet, it is not the people he critiques. His work as a comedian is so powerful because he punches up to these systems of oppression lording over everything else in society.

On the other hand, if an Indian comedian makes fun of Muslims for the way they dress, it is simply a crude mode of ridiculing the oppressed.

I am an atheist myself, and have strong views about orthodox religion. But if I “punch down” and criticise the way a religious woman dresses, it would be demeaning to both my comedy and the subject of my jokes.

Rather, addressing the power structures that might compel her to dress a certain way even if she does not want to would be the source of more powerful art – funny, respectful and empathetic art. Offensive to some, for sure, but offensive in the right ways.

Our visceral responses serve as a lesson

Every time we might be on the verge of laughing at a joke that makes fun of reservation or ridicules the educational qualifications of someone from a marginalised group, we must examine our own biases.

The caste system has been ingrained into India’s psyche. Legislation at the time of Independence abolished untouchability on paper, but it also gave the privileged people of the country a free pass to live without questioning the historical cost of optimising society for a select few like us.

The current system put in place for the oppressed classes and for women is inadequate. But the architect of our Constitution, BR Ambedkar, was right – upliftment within the system cannot come without change outside it.

This spate of criticism of casteist comedy acts serves as a reminder of why we need more representation from members of oppressed groups, in both comedy and the rest of the public sphere. The world of art cannot grow in isolation from the conditions of general society, which have been attuned towards ridiculing virtually unrepresented segments of India.

It is the right of the oppressed – and the duty of the privileged – to acknowledge the systems put in place by our ancestors. For those who have the ability, it is essential to break down the stagnation of upward mobility our middle-class privilege has caused.

Only then, after all, will there come a time when the oppressed get to be on stage and joke about their own stories.

Abhijato Sensarma lives in Kolkata. His Instagram and Twitter handles are @ob_jato.