India’s most popular comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) was booked by the Mumbai Police Cyber Cell for posting a meme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Snapchat’s puppy filter. Mumbai Police filed a First Information Report (FIR) against AIB cofounder Tanmay Bhatt in response to right-wing outrage around the tweet, on the grounds that it insults and defames the Prime Minister.
The post from July 13 showed a Modi lookalike using his phone at a train station, alongside a selfie-like image of the prime minister’s face superimposed with the Snapchat puppy filter, with the caption “Dog filter is lyf,” and the hashtag “#wanderlust,” presumably making a lighthearted joke about Modi’s recent flurry of foreign travel.
It was arguably a rather cute meme, casting Modi in much the same sort of cuddly light he seems to enjoy casting himself in when he hugs heads of state across the globe. But India seems to be struggling to find its sense of humor. Hundreds of conservatives on Twitter lashed out at Bhatt and AIB for “hurting national sentiment.” The post was deleted later that evening.
This isn’t AIB’s first controversy
The advent of social media in the country has brought to light the huge divide in sensibilities in Indian society. All too frequently, what one segment of society finds appealing or funny, another finds highly offensive. And Tanmay Bhatt and AIB have repeatedly found themselves at the center of this discrepancy: from a state-sanctioned ban on the YouTube video of their star-studded live roast of Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, to outrage around Bhatt’s Snapchat videos making fun of Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and singer Lata Mangeshkar, to the recent Modi meme.
Their content has been a huge hit with India’s young, liberal, urban millennials, and some of India’s most prominent movie stars, filmmakers, journalists, and entertainers have publicly shared their admiration and support for the group as well. But AIB also has hundreds of detractors, who simply do not seem to “get” their jokes.
In AIB’s defense, and in defense of the freedom of speech at large, several prominent liberal Indians also showed their solidarity. Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted against the “idiocy” of Mumbai Police getting all fired up over a meme, while Congress MP Shashi Tharoor posted a photo of himself using the puppy filter.
Doesn’t the Mumbai police have better things to do than a case against AIB for a meme on Modi? More idiocy.
— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) July 15, 2017
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 15, 2017
But given that they’ve had to fend off the police in the past already, as well as pay up hefty legal fees, Bhatt and his fellow AIB members are staying away from commenting on the incident to the media.
A comedian’s take
So I asked celebrated comedian Mallika Dua, an integral member of India’s burgeoning comedy landscape, who has collaborated with AIB in the past, to share her take on what the controversy reveals about the rising climate of intolerance in India. “This incident is a shining example of the fear that we might be living in a dictatorship. Soft targets like comedians are attacked regularly and Snapchat stories are more important than real unsolved problems,” she said.
While she agreed that social media can all too often serve as a breeding ground for trolls, she explained that at the same time, the internet remains one of the only outlets for uncensored social commentary in contemporary India : “Thank god for the internet because currently that’s the only medium here actually offering free speech. While that comes with a host of trolling and FIR threats, it’s still one of the saner forms of media,” she explained.
What millennials think
I also asked several everyday millennials what they made of the controversy around the meme. Here are some of the most interesting responses:
“As people here now often say, taking offence has become the new national pastime. From comedians like Tanmay Bhatt to journalists, artists, filmmakers, college students, women, beef eaters, minorities — really anyone at all who challenges the status quo or a dominant ideology in India — has to endure such trolls online and vigilantes offline,” said Anita, 29, a web designer.
“ There’s a significant resistance to any counter narratives, particularly on topics such as religion, politics, and sexuality. From The Central Board of Film Certification chopping up and banning films that would be considered tame in other countries, to the mob style harassment that results in people like Tanmay having to take down their tweets — I think in India we really need to get better at dealing with views different than our own,” said Rahul, 30, a videographer.
“Modi himself is probably way more resilient than his supporters trolling AIB make him out to be. I doubt he cares about this meme — we just have too many people here who have nothing better to do than rabble rouse,” said Lalit, 22, a student.
But Vishnu, 31, a stockbroker, had quite a different view: “Social media shouldn’t be misused like this. Just because you have a twitter account doesn’t mean you can make jokes about the Prime Minister or religious leaders or other figures that have served our country. Freedom of speech should not be abused by people like Tanmay Bhatt who think anything and everything can be joked about. If you set out to provoke, you should have to face consequences.”
But perhaps the most effective commentary on the incident came from Tanmay Bhatt himself, via the words of Prime Minister Modi. In the aftermath of the controversy, Bhatt tweeted a screen shot of an old tweet from the Prime Minister:
— Tanmay Bhat (@thetanmay) July 13, 2017
Let’s hope it struck a chord.
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