Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is among leaders who have been embarrassed by public ridicule. Photo: AFP / Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik

Indian comedian Vir Das’s recent monologue “I come from two Indias” did what satire is supposed to do – outrage some, and amuse others. At the end of a show in Washington this month, Das launched into a cutting six-minute routine highlighting contradictions in India around issues of sexual violence, Covid-19, politics and religion.

Video clips of the monologue sparked an extraordinary reaction. There was outcry over what was perceived as a litany of insults against India, but also support for the way the comedian held a mirror to the failings of his nation. Back home, complaints were made to the police and Das was even banned from performing in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The furore around what Das later described as a “love letter to my country” should spur debate about the importance of satire to public life. But Das and his comedy are not without problems, and the discussion should also allow scrutiny of satirists themselves.

At its most powerful, satire, through its very irreverence, chips away at the hollow edifice of fear, which autocratic regimes and strongmen seek to build to cow their populations.

Activists in Iraq and Syria, some of whom lived in territory controlled by Islamic State (ISIS), created animated series like The Bigh Daddy Show that lampooned the extremist group’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The objective was to show that ISIS consisted of “just a bunch of idiots.”

Humor, if deployed intelligently, lays a trap for its target to respond in a way that further undermines them. Remember Donald Trump’s attempt to get the US Justice Department to investigate Saturday Night Live, a long-running sketch comedy series on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network, for the “crime” of making fun of him?

When regimes have sought to clamp down on opposition political symbols, people have found ingenious ways to show them just how ridiculous they are. In 1967, shortly after the Arab-Israeli War, Israel outlawed the display of Palestinian symbols, including its red, white, black and green flag. It is said Palestinians carried watermelons bearing the same colors to subvert these rules.

Thin-skinned autocratic regimes, almost always led by men, have a particular penchant for clamping down on women partaking in humor.

In 2015, a member of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government cabinet railed against women laughing in public, saying it spread immorality. This prompted a rather boisterous and embarrassing (for the government) backlash on social media, with women posting videos of themselves with the hashtag #kahkaha (“laughter” in Turkish).

In Sudan, opponents of Omar al-Bashir’s autocratic regime in 2012 declared protest days as “elbow-licking” days. This was in reference to Bashir’s riposte to protesters that in seeking to remove him from power, they were attempting something impossible, like licking one’s own elbow. (Bashir must surely have had enough time to try to lick his own elbow, given that he has been in prison for more than a year.)

Political satirists open the door to ordinary citizens to find an outlet to vent their misgivings about injustice in society. Often, the political opposition is tainted from being part of a discredited political “system.” Satire becomes easily accessible, and unlike political commentary or speeches, is considered cool and trendy.

This week, the Taliban announced new content guidelines for TV channels in Afghanistan. It is no surprise that the rules clamp down on comedy programs. Autocratic, misogynistic regimes like the Taliban’s will seek to snuff out humor from popular culture under the pretext of preserving societal morality because genres like comedy constantly push the boundaries of what is acceptable in society.

And only via the constant tension between what is considered appropriate and distasteful can societies hold up a mirror to themselves and evolve. Emblematic of this tension was American comedian Dave Chapelle’s latest comedy show on Netflix, which spurred heated public debate about whether it is acceptable for a comedian’s jokes to pit two marginalized communities (in this case, black and LGBTQ+) against each other.

These debates are important, particularly when it comes to how the identity of the people cracking the jokes intersects with who is at the receiving end of them.

Vir Das is an urban, Hindu, upper-caste, upper-class, English-speaking, heterosexual man. His various identities place him at the very top of the socio-economic pecking order in his country. The fact that he has made it this far, to be able to speak to an audience at the Kennedy Center in the US capital, is emblematic of a problem he never really addressed or centered himself in during his monologue.

Not once during his delivery did Das talk about caste, which lies at the very heart of his own privilege, and which has allowed him to build his career despite making fun of oppressed castes and cracking transphobic jokes.

Das’s success provides the fuel that sustains the injustice he rails against in his monologue. “Lesser” comedians in India, who carry none of Das’s privilege, have been thrown in jail on the mere suspicion of being irreverent. 

In January, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian from an underprivileged background, was jailed for 35 days for jokes that, the police subsequently admitted, he never cracked.

Das is unlikely to face the same travails. On the contrary, the outrage surrounding Das is perhaps beneficial to the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. Das’s inaccessible, elitist humor is likely to fuel the caste-class backlash that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to harness skillfully to reinforce its majoritarian project.

As George Orwell wrote, “every joke is a tiny revolution.” Yet the revolution will be stopped in its tracks if the joke-tellers are themselves part of the problem. The joke will then be on all of us.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.