Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is a bearded being who exists in the unambiguous state between god and man, not a rare condition in India. In him is the modern hint that many of our ancient gods were probably real, and that they were probably extremely flamboyant and melodramatic men who had renounced normality. He has millions of followers, more than many minor full-gods. Once he was accused of inspiring 400 men to get castrated in his ashram to experience the divine, something beyond the capability of the government, which has to bribe women instead to undergo a risky surgery. Unlike most god men, he does not wear a uniform. He appears in robes, T-shirts, sleeveless tops, red pants, hats, caps, turbans and things that do not have names. He wears sunglasses, too.
It is very hard to lampoon him by merely wearing a set of clothes. Even so, a few days ago, the comedian Kiku Sharda was taken into custody by the police for a television show in which he is accused of resembling Singh while performing silly and decadent acts. The charge against Sharda, who is out on bail, is that he has wounded Singh’s followers.
Singh pardoned him in a tweet: “I was busy shooting OnlineGurukul; just got to know, devotees are hurt due to Kiku’s action. If he has apologised, no complaint from my side”. He is a god-man who uses the semi-colon.
The comedian has said: “I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s sentiments. I did not mean to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments. I am sorry.” This, we know, is a lie.
He has no choice but to utter such nonsense to get off the hook. His crime is ambiguous because the law under which he has been booked is ambiguous. If he perseveres in the courts he may even find justice, with a Supreme Court judge defending his rights in glorious bad prose. But the process of seeking justice is punishing enough for an artist. So Sharda had to utter a lame lie, and there is no doubt he would be very careful in the future.
This keeps happening in India and would continue. Someone conveys a trivial insult that annoys a few; a spineless police force frames charges because they imagine that the Indian’s right to offend is subordinate to an Indian’s right to be offended; and the chap caught in the middle of all this tries to save himself by saying he “didn’t mean to offend”.
But this is not a dismal situation when seen in a way. An unambiguous right to offend would destroy the art of offending.
Some intellectuals point to the terror of thugs to argue that India should have a clear law that gives everyone the right to offend. It is an absurd argument. There is no ambiguity that thugs who use physical violence are committing a criminal act. An offending artist is already protected by law from thugs. For instance, the attack on painters and rationalists are very clearly criminal acts. The fight there is not for a new or clear law but respect for the existing law.
The real foe of artistic freedom is the government, which includes the police and politicians of all types. Artistic freedom is ambiguous only when the Indian government chooses to become the thug — when, say, the police or the court take a minor action or a frivolous complaint seriously. But then there is something fundamentally natural about the government being the foe of art.
When artists demand a clear right to offend from the government, they are also asking the government to become their accomplice. Such an association between art and government is as unnatural and phoney as the alliance between feminism and some men who claim to be feminists without the experience of being women.
Art is pure tension. Humour and the other arts of offending depend on a specific type of tension — an easily enraged society. The immaturity and insecurities of the Indian society, hence the government, nurture this tension. The government does act with disproportionate force against artists, but as long as it does not behead or imprison them for years, and as long as the government does not covertly condone criminal acts of thugs against artists, there is a case for viewing the ambiguity of the right to offend as a vital nutrient of art.
In the West where there are very clear laws defending a person’s right to offend, the art of offence has been destroyed. It has been reduced to a slapstick device. The James Bond parody Johnny English, for instance, pulling down the pants of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Is this the best the British can do with their glorious right to offend? Yes.
It is hard for offence to rise above when a society permits it without any resistance. This is what happens when an art form loses its background tension. This is precisely the reason why European cartoonists are so interested in the Prophet. In the Prophet they have found something culturally, if not legally, illicit. In the Prophet, they have found their tension. They also search for it in moral ambiguities.
The latest issue of the satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, features Aylan, the three-year-old boy who had drowned while fleeing Syria to Europe. A cartoon in the magazine imagines his future if he had lived — as a molester. When cartoonists are allowed to do almost anything, they desperately search for something that is taboo. They mock a dead three-year-old boy.
If India is a paradise for those who take offence, it means it is a paradise for the artists who wish to offend. With some luck, and some clever gambles, they can relish these years before the nation matures so much that nobody is appalled by artists anymore.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal