India Needs its Own Charlie Hebdo

(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai based journalist and author)

Two main reactions have emerged after the horrific attack by masked gunmen on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which ended in a bloodbath, killing its editor and most of its top roster of cartoonists.

The first is unqualified revulsion at the sheer brutality with which the shooters went about their job, barging in with Kalashnikovs and gunning down those present and then killing policemen before they sped off in a car. The second, while expressing shock, tempers it with the "need to be responsible" while commenting on and lampooning certain "sensitive" subjects. (There is of course the loony glee of those who say, "See, we told you they were like that, unlike us who are peaceful," but let us put that aside.)

There cannot be two opinions on the fact and manner of the killing-it resulted in the death of several citizens who were doing their job. The magazine is an equal opportunity offender, and is much loved - and reviled - for its portrayals of all manner of people and beliefs. Its cartoons on Christianity are as bitingly sharp as those on other religions. The Pope and sundry bishops are much-loved targets for the Hebdo team. One showed a Cardinal, a Mullah and a Rabbi marching together against Charlie Hebdo. Another depicted the skeleton of Michael Jackson with the headline, "Finally white." An Indian man was shown looking after his cow but mistreating his wife. The prophet Muhammed has been drawn by its cartoonists too.

In short, the boundaries of religion, political correctness and bad taste are routinely crossed and broken, which is what all good satire should do. Every culture has its Holy Cows and it is important for a society to have someone who pokes and prods them regularly, even if it draws a bit of blood. Humankind would never progress otherwise.

This is what those who say "Let's not cross this line or the other" do not understand. Cultures are not frozen in time-they are dynamic, ever-changing organisms. There are hundreds of interpretations of the Ramayana-which one is "authentic" and who decides that? A K Ramnujan's essay on Ramayana spoke precisely of the multitude of traditions and it was banned by Delhi University because of objections by those who do not like that idea. Christians have objected to films (Last Temptation of Christ), plays (Jesus Christ Superstar) and books (Da Vinci Code). Within religions too, there are different sects who interpret the Holy Books in different ways. Who is to decide which one to respect more than the other? The most recent example is that of the film PK-some Hindutva groups went on a rampage against it for making fun of Godmen and superstition-but the film has raked in 300 crore rupees, so clearly there are a large number of Hindus who enjoyed the film and its message.

Once you begin to draw lines-religion, elders, tradition and that highly dangerous word, culture-healthy skepticism goes out of the window and society is diminished. It becomes dull and conformist.

It would be wrong to think that only conservative elements indulge in boundary-setting; those who call themselves liberals are no less complicit in this exercise.

Political correctness has gone to ridiculous extents; an ever larger number of things are now in the list of Things That Must Never Be Made Fun Of. Fingers are pointed at the slightest infraction-bizarrely, some liberal types have begun to sound highly conservative. In India, "This hurts my sentiments" has assumed epidemic proportions with the result that a filmmaker, author or journalist thinks several times before addressing some issues, lest someone or the other object. This has a chilling effect on society and its artists, ultimately circumscribing original thought and development. Without iconoclasts, we would not today have so many things, from women's lib movements to social reform.

At the very least,  satire makes us smile and then think. In fact, what India needs right now is its own Charlie Hebdo.

There will be mischief -makers who will take full advantage of Freedom of Expression principles. They are not objective analysts or even satirists-they just want to provoke with incendiary remarks. That is the price a society pays-laws are meant to deal with those who are out to cause trouble, but the Principle cannot be jettisoned.

Which is why, while we outright condemn the killers of the cartoonists, we cannot at the same time qualify it by saying, "some things should be respected" because that leads to "They should have been more careful" and then "They had it coming." Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed twice, but that did not stop its team from continuing with its outrageous commentary and cartoons issue after issue. It is possible that it will not stop doing so now either, even if it will hurt. Because you can kill a few men, but you cannot kill Freedom of Expression, the very cornerstone of democracy.

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