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’Leave God Out of It’: Plight of Humour under the Gods of the Present Era

by Sumanta Banerjee, 9 June 2015

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The Economic and Political Weekly - Vol - L No. 23, June 06, 2015

by Sumanta Banerjee

From Copenhagen and Paris to Mumbai and Kolkata, satirists and cartoonists have become targets of bigoted followers of both religious gods (who choose to murder them) and political gods (who put them behind bars). One is reminded of the story of the famous 13th century West Asian humorist Mullah Nasiruddin, who went to a tailor to order a shirt, and the latter promised to deliver it within a week, adding the rider, “God willing!” After several weeks, having listened to the same promise—along with the same rider—a disappointed Nasiruddin finally asked the tailor: “How long will it take, if we leave God out of it?” Nasiruddin’s question, seemingly innocuous, but as a metaphor, tears up the vast canopy of religious hypocrisy that covers our socio-economic practices.

In today’s context, it poses the problem at two levels—(i) the uneasy relationship between the exploitation of popular belief in religious authority (“God willing”) by opportunist charlatans on the one hand, and the quotidian needs of the common people (a shirt, for instance) of which they are deprived on that religious plea, on the other; and (ii) the alliance of religious authority and the modern state, with its paraphernalia of mini gods—politicians, bureaucrats, judges, businessmen, contractors, mafia dons, among others—who also keep reassuring the Nasiruddins of today with the same old promises in the name of some superior authority while denying them their basic needs.

Ironically enough, Nasiruddin’s humorous quip, about keeping God out, predates the current debate over the concept of secularism as keeping all forms of religion separate from civic and political governance. While a breed of Indian politicians and intellectuals suggests that it is a Western idea which is unsuitable for the East, it was actually an Eastern folk humorist who came up with the idea of “leaving God” out of our daily transactions. By expressing his personal scepticism, Nasiruddin in a sense, forewarned us about the conflict that is rending apart our world today over the question of separation of religion from state polity. Quite a large number of people (whether the mutually feuding Shia–Sunni militant groups among the Islamic communities in West Asia and Pakistan, or the Zionists in Israel, or the Hindu fascist organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal in India) subscribe to the belief that their respective gods and religious practices must determine state policies. However outrageous and inhuman such practices may be (like the Islamic Sharia laws of punishment, or the Hindu rules on untouchability and pollution), anyone opposing or violating them (even from within their own communities) are targeted by these fanatics.

In some parts of India, lynching of couples for inter-caste or inter-religious marriages is becoming almost a regular practice. The dominance of powerful casteist-cum-religious groups on the administration was evident recently in Tamil Nadu, where the eminent author Perumal Murugan was forced to withdraw his book from circulation, under pressure from a local bureaucrat. In Bangladesh, the Muslim writer Taslima Nasreen remains an exile from her homeland for daring to question the patriarchal norms and practices of the Islamic mullah-cracy. Not satisfied by exiling her, the latter has been targeting dissidents who are raising their voices within the country. In 2004, its goons attacked Humayun Azad, a Dhaka University professor known for his assertion of secular values, who later succumbed to his injuries.

In 2013, they killed a blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, in Dhaka, after he led a protest demanding capital punishment for Islamist leaders convicted of war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. The latest incident which has caught world headlines is the assassination of the US-based Bangladeshi secularist blogger Avijit Roy (a Hindu by name, married to a Muslim, Rafida Bonya Ahmed) by Islamic fanatics in Dhaka on 26 February 2015. Soon after, they hacked to death another blogger, Washikur Rahman, a critic of Islamic extremism. Pakistan, of course, takes the cake—with its obnoxious blasphemy laws and hudood customs institutionalised in its legal system.

‘Humour in the Time of Cholera’

Given this choleric disposition of both the religious leaders and their political patrons (whether Hindu, Islamic, Christian or Zionist) who dominate vast parts of this world, it is no wonder that among all forms of dissent, the genre of satire is also being targeted by these religious and political leaders. If jokes and cartoons which expose their hypocrisy gain currency among the people, they will undermine their political and social authority. In this context, the killing of the cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the debate that it has provoked among the liberal–left intellectuals, raise some very crucial questions. The debate reveals an ambivalence of sorts that has been dividing these intellectuals.

Some among them ask: Are not the supporters of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons privileging the concept of freedom of expression as defined by the West, which controls the power structure, over the faith of a religious community which consists of a “powerless underclass?” They imply that the cartoons smacked of the sneering attitude of a Western society towards the subjects of its former colonies (French-occupied Africa), as well as many of their descendants (who profess by Islam) living today as immigrants in the poorest parts of Paris. By targeting their Prophet, the cartoons must have hurt their religious feelings. They were like rubbing salt into the wounds which they already suffer from the experiences of discrimination that they face in their daily existence. In continuation of this argument, some among these intellectuals even go to the extent of explaining away the massive rally in Paris in protest against the killings as a manifestation of the hypocrisy of the Western elite, which otherwise remains silent over the killings, on a much larger scale, of Palestinians by Israeli forces. To reinforce their argument, they point out at the presence of the Israeli Prime Minister in the Paris rally.1

While agreeing that some of their arguments are valid (for example, the outraged sentiments of the Muslim immigrants, the hypocrisy of the Western champions of “freedom of speech”), let me also point to some of the fallacies in their critique of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. To start with, the mother of all the Prophet-related cartoons, which provoked the controversy, appeared first as a cover of the magazine dated 3 November 2011. It renamed that issue as “Sharia Hebdo,” with a cartoon depicting a turbaned and bearded man announcing: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” This was a squib aimed at the repulsive Sharia law of punishing dissenters and non-conformists by hitting them with whips.

Surely, the left–liberal intellectuals are not expected to support such practices, even when they want to bend over backwards to come to the defence of the beliefs of the Muslim minorities in France and other states in Europe. But most of them remained silent when the Islamic fundamentalist leaders immediately took up the issue, alleging that the man in the cartoon “resembled” Prophet Muhammad. The Charlie Hebdo office was soon firebombed. But to get the facts right, the bearded man in the cartoon was not named Muhammad. Besides, there is no portrait of Muhammad available till now—since according to the strict Islamic laws, Muhammad’s face could never be delineated. So, how did these Islamic leaders discover “resemblance” to the face of their Prophet in the cartoon? But then, dogmatic belief flies in the face of all logic and historical facts—like the equally fanatic Hindu Sangh Parivar’s obstinate claim that Ram was born on the exact spot where the Babri Masjid stood.

As for the Charlie Hebdo cover, the turbaned and bearded man rather resembled the mullahs who issue fatwahs and impose punishments like lashing, stoning and cutting of limbs under Sharia laws in Islamic-ruled societies. In fact, within the next pages of that particular issue of the magazine, the guest editor is introduced as “Muhammad.” We do not know whether it was used as a pseudonym for a white French or a Muslim immigrant writer. (Incidentally, one of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo was a Muslim who was killed by the Islamic terrorists during the attack.) But while pleading for separation between religion and politics (reflecting the French concept of laicite, which strictly restricts religion to the private sphere), this guest editor wrote that Islam is compatible with humour. This leads us to a highly interesting and lesser-known issue: the place of humour in Islamic culture, a subject which we shall return to a little later.

Meanwhile, let us look into the difference between the status of Islam in the colonial era (when its followers were at the receiving end—and were subjected to humiliating and satirical barbs by Western writers) and today, when powerful Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iran have emerged to play a decisive role in global politics and economics. Islam thus cannot be solely identified with a “powerless underclass”—the excuses which many European liberal–left intellectuals prop up to oppose the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In fact, these rich Islamic states (who claim to constitute the ummah, the entire Muslim community all over the world bound by their religion) have never come to the help of their co-religionist Muslim underclass in the backwaters of Paris, or the ghettoes of London, through financial assistance, or social reforms.

Instead, they have financed the orthodox mullahs to set up seminaries in these places—which propagate an aggressive and orthodox interpretation of Islam, encouraging young Muslims to suicidal and mass killings, as happened in Paris. Curiously enough, these French Muslims of Arab descent did not dare to assault the numerous extreme right-wing newspapers in France, like Minute and Valeurs Actuelles, which spew hate speech against their religion every day. They chose as a soft target Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic magazine which in fact has a long tradition of mocking every orthodox religious belief and custom that look ridiculous. In 2008, it came up with a cartoon having a dig at the Christian belief in Immaculate Conception, showing little Jesus coming out from the womb of Mary!

Some others from the left–liberal camp ask: Should we not make a distinction between “hate speech” (that instigates the listeners to direct violence against the targets) and other forms of free speech (like jokes and cartoons that make fun of the targets)? Mahmood Mamdani, the eminent professor of Columbia University, explains his position in the following words:

I support the right of free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent…We recognize it by distinguishing ‘hate speech’ from other forms of free speech…While I think you have a right to say what you think, I will not support anything you say or write.

Soon after this, Mamdani makes a very important point:

It is one thing to support the right of Charlie Hebdo journalists to print the cartoons they did, and quite another to reprint them as an expression of support...2

The first part of Mamdani’s statement is relevant for the present Indian situation, where political leaders (from both Hindu and Muslim communities) take advantage of the constitutional right to freedom of expression to address public meetings where they make provocative speeches on their respective religious oaths, that instigate their followers to attack others leading to communal riots. We must surely make a distinction between their “hate speech” and other forms of free speech. The second part of Mamdani’s statement is somewhat debatable, and needs elaboration. Does Mamdani mean that the cartoons are acceptable as long as they remain confined to the pages of Charlie Hebdo, but should not be reproduced elsewhere? Or, is he suggesting—which I assume—that politically interested right-wing forces, by reprinting them, will make use of such cartoons to spread hatred against Muslims? It is quite possible.

As an example, selective quotations from the writings of the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen (who remains an exile from her homeland because of her trenchant attack on the patriarchal mullah-cracy) have often been harnessed by the Indian right-wing Hindutva forces to their anti-Muslim caravan of propaganda. When she protested against the violation of Hindu minority rights by Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu fundamentalist forces in India lapped up her comments and incorporated them in their anti-Muslim campaign. The BJP even adopted a resolution on 26 November 2007, demanding that Taslima Nasreen be given the status of a political refugee in India.

All of a sudden, this Muslim iconoclast was being co-opted in the agenda of the Hindu saffron brigade—despite her repeated assertions that she was equally opposed to both Islamic and Hindu religious fundamentalism. There is always this danger of statements or cartoons by writers and artists being hijacked by political forces to serve their particular interests. But then, should that deter us from critiquing outrageous customs and practices carried out in the name of religion?

Humour in Islamic and Hindu Cultures

At this stage of the discussion, it may be relevant to recall the role of humour in both Islamic and Hindu cultural traditions. To start with, it is necessary to disabuse Muslim believers of the idea that their Prophet was a scowling killjoy—an image which has been meticulously advertised by the mullahs. The idea has been reinforced in the Muslim psyche by the prudish and censorious edicts of the Sunni clergy of Saudi Arabia, and the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran. During Prophet Muhammad’s times, from contemporary sources like reminiscences of his sahabas (companions), the Hadith and other texts, it appears that the early Islamic society was easy-going and far removed from the narrow-mindedness and murderous morbidity that prevail over it today.

Muhammad himself cracked jokes with his sahabas and wife Aisha—often at his own expense. When asked by his companions why he did this, he said: “But I only tell the truth.” In other words, the truth can often be expressed through jokes which can be easily comprehended by the common people. After all, the Quran said: “That is He who granted Laughter and Tears.” As Islam granted its followers this right to laugh, the later disciples of Muhammad made innovative use of it to lampoon the Muslim clergy (who usurped the right to interpret the Hadith in the name of the Prophet), and mocked self-righteous Islamic institutions and disciplines.

One such humorist was Ash’ab, a singer and entertainer who lived in Medina in the eighth century, and whose jokes were later collected in the form of a text in the 10th century. In one of his jokes, he disparaged a cleric who claimed that the Prophet had defined only two qualities in human beings which would make them God’s chosen friends. When asked what these two qualities were, Ash’ab replied that the cleric had forgotten one, and he himself had forgotten the other!

That the tradition of such light-hearted raillery continued all through the following centuries is evident from the survival of the jokes of the 13th century humorist Mullah Nasiruddin. A modern historian, who culled information from Arabic literary sources which are contemporaneous with both Muhammad and his later followers, observes:

Prophet Muhammad himself possessed much cheerful humanity, and his followers through the centuries have always preserved a good natured love of jokes and pranks... In the first four centuries of Islam, the representatives of ascetic piety were comparatively few, and their voices were not heeded. On the contrary, there existed a pronounced predilection for humour and gaiety which knew few restrictions.

He then cites numerous instances of such jokes and pranks, indulged in by both Muhammad, and his followers in the later times.3

If we turn to the comic tradition in Hindu culture, there is no end to the jokes that deride Brahmin priests and charlatans in classical Sanskrit comedies, and deglamorise Hindu gods like Vishnu and Shiva in popular folk songs. The famous playwright Shudraka of the sixth century, for instance, in one of his plays (Padmaprabhrtaka), described the self-righteous Brahmin priest as “an impure man who has created a reputation of purity,” and Shudraka invented a term for him—pavitraka (meaning a strainer, or a sieve, which in the name of purifying, holds within itself all the impurities of that which pass through it). In another play of Shudraka’s, the famous Mrichhakatika, the Vidushaka asks: “What’s the use of worshipping the gods? They don’t bother to show any favour no matter how much you worship them anyway.” Another Sanskrit comic poet from the past, poked fun at the comfortable sleeping beds of the Hindu gods and goddesses—“Lakshmi sleeps on a lotus/Shiva sleeps on the Himalayas/Vishnu sleeps on the Milky Ocean/The gods must be afraid of bedbugs!”4

When today, the ideologues of the Sangh Parivar and their ministers insist on making Sanskrit India’s national language and compulsory for students in schools and colleges, do they dare to include in the school and college syllabi Sanskrit classics like the works of Shudraka and Bhartrihari, which are full of satirical barbs against the hypocrisy of the Hindu clergy and their divinities? The humorists of folk culture are more strident in lampooning gods like Shiva and Krishna. In Bengali folk songs, Shiva is often depicted as a hemp-addict, idling away his time while his wife Parvati is left looking after household chores. Krishna is again ridiculed as a philanderer who deserts his lover Radha in Vrindavan, to become the king of Mathura. Such popular jokes and satires reflect the desire of the lower orders to bring down the deities worshipped by their superiors to their own level, by domesticating them and making fun of their human frailties. Humour for them becomes a way of subverting the prevailing hierarchical religious order by turning the world upside down. In their literature, the divinities, instead of remaining sacrosanct objects of worship, are turned into subjects of ridicule.5

The present generation of politico-religious fanatics—whether of the global Islamic, or our home-bred Hindu variety —display a sectarian and selective approach to the comic. They resent any jokes directed against their respective religious practices or political leaders, but have no hesitation in indulging in scornful mockery in the foulest language against members of the other communities/groups whom they consider their opponents. The internet websites have become an open platform for exchanges of such vituperative expletives between Hindu and Muslim zealots. Repartees have become devoid of any sense of humour, and are becoming verbal fisticuffs. Watching such slanging of banter as virtual reality, and judging by the violence in their language, I detect a visceral hatred against the “other” in their utterances. If these feuding contestants and participants in the website debates are let loose in public, they will be at each other’s throats, provoking a communal riot—as often happens, being triggered off by vitriolic statements and speeches made by both Hindu and Muslim politicians.6

Humour as a Threat to Modern Political Gods

When we move from the religious to the political in the modern Indian scenario, we find a constellation of new gods and their agents, who demand subservience and command idolatry from the public—similar to what is enjoined upon followers of their respective religions by the clerical establishment of the Hindu gods, the Prophet, Jesus Christ and their clergy. These new gods are the Indian politicians and their cronies in the corporate sector, their evangelist purohits dominating the legislatures and commercial media, and their warriors, in the shape of various mafia dons and gangsters in the pay of political parties, controlling land, forests, mineral resources, rural khap panchayats and urban real estate business.

As in the past, today also, humour remains a major weapon in the arsenal of the weak to mock at the arrogance of the newly emergent political powers. Quite understandably therefore, it is perceived by the power elite as a threat. Jokes and comic stories have always spread by word of mouth—and today through the internet. They make a laughing stock of the self-righteous, insolent rulers by hitting out at their corruption and nepotism, on a wider scale—thanks to technology.

In the early decades of post-independence India, a self-confident ruling Congress could afford to take such humour in its stride. Nehru in fact encouraged the famous cartoonist Shankar to poke fun at him. At one level, it can be interpreted as a part of the tradition of a humorous bridge between the rulers and the ruled in the form of the court jester (who could dare to banter with the royalty—like Birbal in Akbar’s court, or Gopal Bhanr who was a favourite of Maharaja Krishnachandra, the ruler of Nabadwip in Bengal in the 17th century), whose jokes had a universal appeal, where even Europeans could find a Falstaffian gusto.

At another level, Nehru was expressing the last voice of a bourgeois–liberal humanist tradition which welcomed good-humoured deprecation of official policies and ruling politicians. It is significant that magazines of political cartoons (like Shankar’s Weekly), which were very much a part of the Indian media scene in the 1960–70 period, have almost disappeared today. The present political ruling classes—irrespective of their different hues—are an insecure lot, unsure of their hold on the electorate, and suffering from a chronic paranoia about threats from every corner. The political gods and goddesses who rule India today are thus scared of humour. They suppress the comic, or manage to sterilise their humorous critics and turn them into their orderlies.7

Suppression is not limited to the genre of humour alone, but extends to other spheres of culture too. At times, it takes the form of vandalism of exhibitions of paintings, or cultural institutions, by goons of political outfits which perceive them as challenging their authority over interpretation of religion and history (e g, attacks against Hussain’s paintings; assaults on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune on 5 January 2004 by the Sambhaji Brigade). Let me cite a few recent incidents as examples of how political powers seek to muffle dissent—humorous or otherwise—by not only employing their musclemen, but also by invoking draconian legal measures, like certain sections of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (which thankfully has been struck down only recently by the Supreme Court).

In Kolkata in 2012, a professor of Jadavpur University, Ambikesh Mahapatra, and his neighbour, Subrata Sengupta, were arrested for circulating a cartoon that mocked the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Following a long- drawn-out legal battle against Mamata’s government, the judiciary acquitted the two and passed orders on the government to compensate them for the harassment that they had suffered. The same year (2012), the Mumbai police arrested Aseem Trivedi for cartoons, shared on social media, which mocked Parliament and corruption in the upper echelons of the administration.

One cartoon depicted Parliament as a giant commode and showed the national emblem as wolves instead of the official emblem of lions, with the words Bhrashtameva jayete (victory of corruption) instead of the official message of Satyameva jayate (victory of truth). Trivedi was also slapped with the charge of sedition under a law which was formulated by the British colonial rulers, and still adorns the statute book of the Indian judicial system. In June 2014, 11 students of Sree Krishna College in Thrissur and their principal were accused under Section 66A, and nine from among the students were arrested. The charge against them—their campus magazine Name was found to have used “objectionable and unsavoury” language against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.8

But such judicial and extrajudicial machinations to suppress dissent can never dumb the sniggers and snide jokes that target the modern gods who constitute the power elite. Such witticisms are incubated in the underbelly of our society. In the tea stalls on the pavements of our cities, funny yarns are being invented about Narendra Modi’s transformation from a “chai-wala” to a fashion model walking down the ramp, displaying an expensive suit embossed with his name. Mullah Nasiruddin’s comic descendants in today’s urban slums and rural backwaters continue to mock at the incongruities between the pretentious claims of our modern religious and political bosses, and their abysmal failure to live up to those claims. They invent new jests and anecdotes at the expense of these self-righteous bigwigs. These jokes fly like butterflies from one person to another, from Facebook to Twitter, and become a part of the wider political vocabulary of protest. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, and their compatriots in other parts of the world, who lost their lives for daring to laugh at holy cows, are martyrs to the cause of humour.


1 Asgar Bukhari, “This Attack Was Nothing to do with Free Speech—It Was About War,”, 7 January 2015. Takis Fotopoulos: “How the Transnational Elite Created Islamic Terrorism,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol 11, Nos 1/2, Winter–Summer, 2015.

2 Mahmood Mamdani’s interview with Vidya Venkat, Hindu, 15 January 2015.

3 Franz Rosenthal, Humour in Early Islam, Brill Publishers, Leiden, 1956, reprinted 2011, pp 3–4. This is a pioneering study by a historian who meticulously studied Arabic literature, and dared to come up with conclusions that challenged the orthodox interpretation of Islam and the sayings of the Prophet.

4 Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (a collection of more than 10,000 subhashitas—a literary genre of Sanskrit wisdom sayings and epigrammatic poems), collected by Narayana Rama Acharya (Nirnaya Sagara Press, Bombay), 1952. Quoted in Lee Siegel, Laughing Matters. Comic Tradition in India (Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi), 1989 .

5 This particular aspect of popular culture has been examined in some detail by the present author in his book The Parlour and the Streets (Seagull Books, Calcutta), 1989, and in his essay “Laughter as Subversion in Nineteenth Century Calcutta” in The Calcutta Psyche edited by Geeti Sen (India International Centre, New Delhi), 1990–91. In this connection, it is also pertinent to examine the culture of Sikh jokes (e g, the Banta Singh–Santa Singh anecdotes) which are widely popular all over India—spun by Sikhs themselves, who have the self-confidence to laugh at their own follies and frailties.

6 Websites like www.barenakedislam, and the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana, are typical representatives of the anti-Muslim hate speech masquerading as humour. These anti-Muslim tirades find their mirror images in the anti-Hindu speeches by Muslim politicians like the Owaisi brothers and others, in websites and newspapers run by Islamic fundamentalist groups.

7 The best example of such co-option of a cartoonist into the political establishment is Bal Thackeray. Driven by political ambition, and rising on the waves of Maharashtrian chauvinism, this one-time cartoonist founded the Shiv Sena in the 1960s, and his organisation was used by the then ruling Congress politicians of Bombay and its industrial neighbourhood to demolish the communist trade union movement there.

8 Indian Express, 25 March 2015.


The above article from Economic and Political Weekly is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use