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Analysis

Why Selectively Target Hindu Gods? The Saga Of Indian Stand-Up Comics Apologising After ‘Hurting Sentiments’

It isn’t a coincidence that most pejorative depictions of Hinduism and Hindus by our artists and comedians are straight copy-paste of the colonial Hinduphobic sterotypes

In the last few days, a section of Mumbai-based stand-up comedians have been taking turns to apologise to Maharashtra's regional parties after objections were raised over their comic routines involving Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

The issue began when a comedy skit by Agrima Joshua went viral on social media which was dubbed by many as a mockery of Shivaji Maharaj. Joshua initially put up a brave face by declaring that she would not apologise for the controversial video and even accused the "BJP IT cell" of trolling her.

Joshua subsequently made a "humble apology" after a Shiv Sena MLA demanded her arrest and a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) worker vandalised her work studio. While Joshua earlier accused the BJP IT cell of trolling, her apology message only mentioned Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Shiv Sena, Congress, MNS and its leaders.

The incident triggered a chain reaction and similar videos of other stand-up comics emerged. As per reports, comedians Aadar Malik, Sahil Shah and Azeem Banatwalla too have tendered similar apologies for their jokes.

Past Record Of Comedians Saying Sorry

The act of Indian comedians saying sorry is nothing new.

Soon after the comedy troupe AIB's infamous roast in 2015, various Christian groups erupted in protest after alleging that some jokes had hurt their religious sentiments.

AIB members Rohan Joshi, Ashish Shakya and Tanmay Bhat along with Abish Matthews then met Auxiliary Bishop of Bombay Cardinal Agnelo Gracias and issued a long and polite written apology - which was heavily mocked on social media.

This was not the end of AIB's tryst with apologies and, in 2018, the group issued a statement saying that they apologise for failing to take action against comedian Utsav Chakraborty despite being aware of sexual harassment allegations against him. Chakraborty, a year later, defended himself against these allegations by claiming that he shared consent with at least two of his accusers.

Another comic routine of Mumbai-based entertainers earned the ire of the Christian community when Farah Khan, Raveena Tandon and Bharti Singh were booked by Amritsar Police. This came after a complaint was filed by an organisation called "Christian Front of Ajnala Block" over the actors allegedly mocking the word ‘Hallelujah’. All three of them subsequently issued "heartfelt apologies".

Similarly, the director and creator of an online comic TV show called Jay Hind issued a formal apology after members of the Sikh community reacted angrily.

In May, prominent comedian Kapil Sharma tendered an apology to the Kayastha community on behalf of his whole team over comments made on Hindu god Shri Chitragupta.

Recently, a comedian named Surleen Kaur found herself in the eye of the storm after she made derogatory comments against the followers of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and ancient Hindu saints.

Shemaroo, which published the video, soon jumped into damage control mode after ISKCON lodged a complaint. It unconditionally apologised for the video and disassociated itself from the comedian.

The 'Art' Of Mocking Hindu Gods

While we are on the subject of comedians and their controversial routines, the comics also came under fire recently for their videos and tweets mocking Hindu gods and goddesses.

Screenshots of comedian Azeem Banatwalla's tweets recently went viral wherein he mocked Ramayana, Lord Ganesha and Ma Sita.

A complaint was subsequently lodged against Banatwalla, following which he tendered an apology for his tweets.

Similarly, a screenshot of AIB co-founder Rohan Joshi's old tweet went viral on Twitter wherein he is seen making a derogatory statement against Ma Sita.

Joshi recently deactivated his twitter account after his tweets in which he 'joked' about rape and wanting the entire Pawar family dead went viral.

Another comic named Aadar Malik can be seen in a video mocking Lord Ganesha and Ganesha Chaturthi. In another reported video, he can be heard mocking Lord Shiva. He too has tendered an apology now.

As per reports, other stand-up comics like Sanjay Rajoura from ‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’ too were found mocking lord Ganesha in old videos.

Additionally, another stand-up comedian named Neeti Palta deactivated her twitter account after an old tweet of her denigrating Puja and Temples went viral.

The 'Courage' To Selectively Mock Hindu Gods

It is amply clear from the examples cited above that so-called Indian stand-up comedians hold no fear over mocking Hindu gods and traditions. While barely any prominent gods were spared by the comedians, their ilk appears to be maintaining an almost blanket silence when it comes to mocking Abrahamic faiths.

It should be noted that even in the case of the Farah Khan incident, the trio did not directly mock Christianity. Regardless, a Christian organisation initiated legal action.

Incidentally this disparity over choosing some religions over others to mock was famously addressed by magician Penn Jillette who explained why he and Teller did not target Islam in their TV show Bullshit!

"...And we haven’t tacked Islam because we have families...”

Meaning, you won’t attack Islam because you’re afraid it’ll attack back?

“…Right, and I think the worst thing you can say about a group in a free society is that you’re afraid to talk about it—I can’t think of anything more horrific."

Thus the simplest explanation for comedians almost exclusively mocking Hindu gods and traditions as opposed to its Abrahamic counterparts is - they are a lot less afraid to do so.

It is common knowledge that Islamists, in particular, have imposed heavy costs on anyone who denigrates their religion or prophet - the most recent example being the chilling murder of Hindu activist Kamlesh Tiwari for his comments against Mohammed, the prophet of Islam.

There are many examples ranging from the Charlie Hebdo shootings to the worldwide outrage over Satanic Verses.

The above explanation though comes with a key assumption about Indian comedians - they are fine with mocking other religions but just lack the courage to do so.

This raises the question - what if some of them are genuinely Hinduphobic and 'comedy' is just an outlet for them to vent out their prejudices.

It should be noted that a shocking number of incidents of Hindu-hatred recently came to light during the anti-CAA protests. Be it chanting “In Kafiron se Azadi”, desecrating Om as a Nazi symbol, depicting goddess Kali in a hijab or chanting a poem which loosely contains the words - When All Idols Will Be Removed...Only Allah’s Name Will Remain.

It isn’t a coincidence that most pejorative depictions of Hinduism and Hindus by our artists and comedians are straight copy-paste of the colonial Hinduphobic sterotypes.

And if the proponents of the freedom of expression want to detatch historical context and complexities from the art form of comedy, it is pertinent to ask whether they would be willing to do so in other cases as well.

The comedy culture, much like the rest of the pop culture in India, is following that in the West. The most liberal-left of the comedians in the West swear by a high standard of freedom of expression, and Indian intellectuals tout these as a worthy example - if Americans can tolerate a joke on 9/11, then Indians should be able to tolerate a joke on 26/11.

But would these intellectuals uphold the same standard if it’s a joke about beneficiaries of reservation policy being uncompetitive (like in the Big Bang Theory), a joke on caste sterotypes similar to ones of Blacks, Jews, Muslims, etc. (like in the Family Guy)?

The truth is that while Indian intellectuals set the narrative of power (political or mob) interfering with their freedom of expression, their art itself operates within and complies with a power structure dominated by monotheistic imperial sensibilities.

In a universe dominated by these sensibilities, artists prove their commitment against toxic masculinity by desecrating the photos of Hindu goddesses, but fail to speak against the kind of toxic masculinity that did and continues to abduct, rape, sexually enslave, forcibly convert thousands of Hindu women based on their faith.

In this universe, the real problem with religion is one too many gods and how funny they look, not that millions of human beings were, are and potentially will be killed in the name of one true god and one true religion.

Sure, two wrongs don’t make a right but it is important to clarify that Indian artists and intellectuals aren’t a victim of abuse of power; they are the progenitors and torch-bearers of the culture of abuse of power. They have set an example on how lazy comedy based on historically entrenched Hinduphobic stereotypes can be a shortcut to fame.

Artists often forget that creative license and subjectivity is not an excuse for dishonesty.

You cannot cry victim when you try but fail to manipulate others into believing you are honest when you’re not. If you’re playing in the currency of power, then likewise will be the response.

Had our artists and intellectuals decided to play in the currency of truth and honesty, as they are supposed to, the scene would’ve been very different.

In the least, the audience would see some original content.