Comedian-actor Kiku Sharda was arrested by the Haryana Police following a complaint by followers of the Sirsa based Dera Sacha Sauda sect for lampooning its religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim. The comedian was sent to 14 days judicial custody on 13 January by a court in Kaithal and later released on a surety bond of Rs 1 lakh.
The ordeal continued with his re-arrest in Fatehabad district for the same transgression. A third case has been registered against Sharda under Sections 295A, 153A, 298 and 120B of the IPC that deal with deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.
The epicentre of the incident is Jashn-e-umeed, a programme that was telecast on Zee TV on 27 December 2015. Though Sharda, who represented the self-styled godman on the show, apologised readily by saying that the coincidence was not “deliberate”, it clearly was not enough to appease the guru’s angry followers.
“The test of an audience is never how much they’re laughing or clapping, but when you pause, how much silence there is,” said comedian Papa CJ in the documentary I Am Offended by You-Tube channel Being Indian. The outrage over the mimicry amounting to immediate arrest of the comedian speaks volume about our society’s intolerance towards criticism and caricature. Also, the sect’s claim that the “whole country” has unanimously been vexed by the act can be dangerous since it undermines and over-simplifies the notion of plurality in perspectives that any milieu strives towards.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim on the other hand distanced himself from the incident on the pretext of a busy shooting schedule and then remarked, “If he has apologised, no complaint from my side.” But one look at Messenger of God with the godman performing incredulous stunts in stretchy lycra such as flying across the sky tests our tolerance towards such humour. It is the certification of the same movie by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) that made Leela Samson put her foot down and offer resignation as the chairperson of the Board.
Mainstream comedians often derive content for their acts from such larger than-life personalities since their performative antics can be storehouses of comic fodder. It also makes for a few easy laughs as they are relatable references for the masses. But when political or religious figures see such acts as a defiance and come down heavily on anyone with a different perspective, it compromises with the freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution.
Many in the entertainment industry have come out in support of Sharda and condemned the shrinking space for humour in the right spirit. “Congratulations India on speedily arresting someone for comedy. Now maybe you can do the same for actual crime soon,” tweeted comedian Vir Das.
The Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), Cine & Tv Artistes Association, Film Writers Association and other affiliates of FWICE united in protest against the appalling treatment meted out to Sharda by the authorities in treating him at par with other criminals. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi condemning the incident in a series of tweets stated that the arrest made India look like a “tin pot republic” and suggested that Sharda be “awarded not arrested”.
This is not the first time the entertainment industry is facing allegations of offending religious sentiments. Aamir Khan’s 2014 hit PK had faced a lot of flak for taking a critical look at religious practices in India. Complaints were also filed against Akshay Kumar starrer Oh My God for belittling religious sentiments. The content of the 2015 film Dharam Sankat Mein featuring Paresh Rawal was measured to be so contentious and sensitive that the CBFC had a tough time ‘sanitizing’ it before release.
Ironically, the self-styled godman has a blasphemy case registered against him since 2007 for impersonating Guru Gobind Singh. He is also facing charges based on a complaint lodged by All India Hindu Student Federation for dressing like Hindu god Vishnu.
While the prevalent culture in the country makes it clear that anyone or anything with the word ‘god’ in it have sprouted halos of immunity around them, mere mortals will have to perfect the art of having straighter faces. Laugh at the ‘wrong’ joke and you might end up staring unwillingly at the dreary insides of a lock-up.