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10.05.2017

What a month for brown guys in comedy. Riz Ahmed is on the cover of Time; Aziz Ansari is the face of this fortnight's issue of New York; ahead of a new movie, Kumail Nanjiani makes it into the New Yorker. To cap it all, last week had Hasan Minhaj’s roast of American president Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which went viral around the connected world last week.  

It’s early days, but the Trump era seems to be doing wonders for Muslim men in American show business, in spite of -- or because of -- hostilities threatening off-stage. In India, the arguments around Minhaj’s video came with two discernible strands of disbelief. One: “How could someone talk like this to America’s Supreme Leader?" Two: "A Muslim at that! Now that is freedom of speech.”

The outrage -- our dominant mode of discourse -- emerged, of course, because no one could conceive of a single scenario in which our own prime minister would remain silent as an Indian Muslim comedian went off on a fifty-minute rant about his government’s cock-ups and conflagrations. 

My question is: does this really surprise anyone? The liberal hand-wringing over this is unfathomable because the comparison of free speech between America and India is itself ludicrous.

In the United States, free speech is a cherished observance. Those who prize it have fought for it on the streets and in the courts. They recognise that freedom of expression is constantly imperilled, especially by those claiming to defend the “authentic” culture of their societies. There may be proscriptions, but freedom of speech is a vital component of each American’s idea of their own democracy. 

Imagine Zaheer Khan doing this to protest how young Muslims are routinely arrested on trumped-up terror charges. Actually don’t imagine that, because it wouldn’t be pretty.

We saw a beautiful manifestation of this last year, when the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to protest the on-going killings of young black men by American police, by kneeling during the ritualistic pre-game performance of the American national anthem. Kaepernick’s actions were reviled by most of the mostly white fans who crowd American football stadiums. They spat abuse and threats; many expressed their desire to yank him to his feet. 

Meanwhile in India, we were beating up people who couldn’t or wouldn’t stand for the national anthem in movie halls. Imagine a famous athlete protesting our own national anthem in front of a baying stadium. Imagine Zaheer Khan doing this to protest how young Muslims are routinely arrested on trumped-up terror charges. Actually don’t imagine that, because it wouldn’t be pretty.

We give lip service to free speech, but in reality we have no such thing. Free speech cannot exist without the state protecting that freedom. The burden of maintaining law and order and protecting its outspoken citizens lies with the state, but in almost any such situation – whether Salman Rushdie, All India Bakchod, or the teenager who talked smack about Bal Thackeray on a Facebook post – the state bows to the might of our pretend-cultural guardians. The threat of vigilante mob violence is so pronounced that everyone in any sort of public life bows to their diktats. We do it every day.

That, in short, is why we’re so much funnier overseas than we are at home. If Prime Minister Modi were to be lambasted in public by a Minhaj-style Muslim comedian, it is likely there would be a mob at that comedian’s house the next day. Forget Modi; we’ve bayed for blood over Snapchat jokes about Sachin Tendulkar. Neither of those men would have needed to lift a finger to call a mob to cry down jokes about them. It wasn’t very different in the Congress years, either. This is just how political patronage works in the country: mobs curry favour with those in power, while those in power use the mob when it suits them. 

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is perhaps a unique institution in world politics: a bunch of journalists getting roundly drunk and insulting the most powerful man in the world. We are so far away from that point that it is silly to complain we are not there. Twitter’s finest liberals, don’t ask why a Muslim in India isn’t allowed to speak to the Prime Minister in a certain way. That is a minute subsection of the limitation on freedom of speech. Ask instead why we must all self-censor at every moment of the day just so we can go on peacefully with our lives. 

Prayaag Akbar is a journalist and writer. His novel Leila was published this month by Simon & Schuster India. 

 

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