LOL: You Have the Right to Remain Silent

In a world where the Internet provides a mouthpiece for the articulation to all its netizens, can cracking a misfired joke make you the next big victim of the outrage brigade and the Internet trolls? Are comedians soft-targets online? Has the normalisation of rape culture seeped into the Internet? How do you balance your freedom of expression with a healthy dose of responsibility? The latest fiasco centring around comedian Agrima Joshua’s mistimed jokes and the arrest of YouTuber Shubham Mishra puts these pertinent issues squarely back in focus this week.


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A few winks ago, stand up comedian Agrima Joshua was at the receiving end of massive online backlash as a clip from her comedy set in 2019 resurfaced online. The comedian’s commentary on a Quora post which played up a fake Whatsapp University forward about the 3,600-crores Shivaji statue in Mumbai was soon to come into the public glare of those who were ‘outraged’ and ‘affronted.’ The clip in question, later taken down by the artist, but re-uploaded by other Internet users, plays as below.

The joke which had the ‘outrage brigade’ out with daggers was misconstrued as being anti-Shivaji (India’s legendary firebrand warrior prince and symbol of its effervescent nationalism), while in actuality was the focus of misinformed quora commentary — something that’s been the ire of most Quora users for the last few years. Quora, a platform which allows users to pose subjective answers to questions, has often been targeted for not having an informed, neutral disposition such as that found on Wikipedia. A joke as the comedian soon realised is serious business here in India. Although the joke described — pedestrian, at best, wouldn’t for the most part be considered controversial (cue in eye-roll), yet it seemed to have ruffled feathers.

The aforementioned clip purportedly upset YouTuber Shubham Mishra with a subscriber base of over 300,000 users to post a distasteful rant on his 34,000 fans-strong Instagram handle warning the comedian with rape threats and further inciting possible violence. Shubham’s offensive rant warned the comedian and her mother against a Nirbhaya-styled rape for having ‘hurt religious sentiments’. This response soon went viral as it found both unhinging supporters in the comments and up-in-arms adversaries ready to censure the appalling statement. Shubham’s stomach-churning, venom spewing rant soon earned him a place in the police lockup as Vadodra Police took suo motu action against him. Not for an instant did the moral brigade take into consideration Maharaja Shivaji’s utmost respect for women and the inclusive nature of his religious integration as his philosophy.

Meanwhile, the comedian had released a statement taking down her earlier video, apologising to all aggrieved parties and taking her public Instagram account private to escape the harassment of the troll army. While those opposing the comedian shared her now-deleted tweet from 2017 claiming to be able to laugh at ‘rape jokes’ as earned karma, absolutely nothing allows for rape threats to be normalised. Last Friday, a few unidentified individuals, allegedly associated with the MNS, ransacked the comedy venue in Khar West, which was where Agrima first took the stage. A little bit of opportunistic politicking added fuel to this fire.

Yet through all of the ruckus though, one question remains moot — is the normalisation of rape culture embedded in our online societies here in India? Scroll through the Twitterverse or YouTube comments of subjects that may well be deemed volatile, and you’ll notice the sad demise of public modesty and respect in responses. Misogynistic and gender abusive statements find new salvation online, sometimes prompting an overreach by a certain sect of keyboard warriors who promote unfettered vigilantism. But empty threats aside, what if there is really a risk of life and limb? Does the freedom of expression give you a right to offend? And if so, how do you do that in the realms of responsibility? Our fundamental right of freedom under Article 19 of the constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, yet the law isn’t absolute.

Article 19(2) of Constitution places several “reasonable restrictions” on the exercise of free speech like “sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. What Agrima joked about cannot in the wildest stretch be deemed as either a hate speech or a defamatory activity — especially on Maharaja Shivaji. Context, clearly, is extremely important, even more so in comedy.

In recent times, comedians who have taken on the role of political and non-political musings online, have found themselves with a target on the back. While a few months ago, comedian Kunal Kamra earned his 15-seconds-of-notoriety during the NRC-CAB uproar, recently Kenny Sebastian was called out for having made mockery of Sanskrit. Plenty of clips have resurfaced online with comedians being made to apologise for their ‘mistimed’ jokes. Do note that what could be funny to one, could be a sensitive issue to the other. As India skews younger, the social norms too may change with times.

Yet as many people object to sarcasm and misplaced humour, issues such as sexual objectification, misogyny and rape culture continue to shadow us. A few months ago, when students of some of South Delhi’s poshest schools were involved on an Instagram scandal — the Bois Locker Room, India stood aghast. Yet, these are the visible shoots and the roots lie elsewhere. It is important that police action has followed against the likes of Shubham Mishra for hitherto offensive statements made by him, yet many others exist who have taken on the roles of self-aggrandised moral and cultural watchdogs. Maybe it’s time to call them out too. Even the former Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court had once concurred, “I have always held that without the right to offend the right to free speech does not have any meaning. I am also aware that free speech is not absolute and am absolutely opposed to speech that incites violence.” Yet, if censorship must first start, then it must start with the rape-induced commentary of the said influencers who now stand exposed.

It is time now to stop spewing a mouthful, and reign in our most base tendencies and use common sense to put things in perspective. A joke made in private setting with the sheer intention to get a few laughs isn’t threatening to our culture as a collective. Our history and culture aren’t that fickle for starters. All this would seem common sense. But then again, as someone wisely said common sense isn’t all that common.

(The views expressed in the piece are the writer’s own, and may or may not reflect that of the publisher.)

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