AIB controversy: A chance to be more than comedians

aibThroughout history, it has been the role of artists to push the envelope of what is appropriate, what is acceptable and provide shock therapy to sensibilities, which we know need to lighten up from time to time. Historically, that has been the only course for ideological reform and the weakening of a conservative stranglehold.

Regardless of what some may think of the AIB roast, all those involved exercised their right to express themselves. It was content with all the necessary restrictions, open to ‘consenting’ adults. At the same time, all those offended by the content also have the right to rage, even seek police action if they were ‘offended’. But I have complete faith that any such complaint will be tossed out of a court. It happened when Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition for his cartoon, it happened when students in Meerut were charged with sedition for cheering for Pakistan. This case will not be different. Those offended by cultural expression have a poor legal track record in India. They scream and shout, but the content reaches out there even if there is an arbitrary ban. Be it controversial books, videos or pictures – those who are looking for it will always find it. The crux of this issue is that – is there a significant counter by the proprietors of controversial content and those who support it to fight for – not their – but THE right to express.

aib 2This struggle will emerge time and again, whenever artists or activists try to challenge the cultural status quo. While some artists prime themselves to hit back when their expression is curtailed, many find themselves and their craft become elevated by circumstances. In such situations, artists can transcend their base definitions to become key players in ongoing universal struggles. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen drew the ire of the right wing, but were never apologetic about what they did. They firmly believe that the freedom to express is the freedom to offend, and made the choice to stand by their craft despite facing peril at their doorsteps. Even after the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were murdered – the magazine re-printed their controversial cover featuring the Prophet, which was their direct challenge to violence against expression. From authors, they have now become paragons of the pursuit for free expression – all over the world. They made the choice and are celebrated for it.

Why AIB took down the video, we may never exactly know, but the situation offered them the chance to elevate the debate over free expression in India. They may have taken down the video over personal safety – and everyone must respect their choice. Their show is still on the web, and it has already generated a cultural effect. But all that has transpired has clearly been a win for the Opposition. A precedent has been set in the cultural battle involving ‘roast’ and ‘standup comedy’, and AIB’s press release was simply a white flag.

At no point am I saying the members of AIB are cowards. It takes serious guts to put up a show like the ‘roast’, and they are champions of their craft. However, I feel that the ‘controversy’ generated around the ‘roast’ was not the time for them to make a tactical retreat. They had the chance to be more than just comedians to reaffirm the spirit of what they represent. Fate only rarely gives artists such opportunities and they should have capitalised on it to become an interesting, loud, vibrant and mother-f$^%&*! crucial voice in the campaign for the ever elusive right to free speech and expression.

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Paris attacks: Testing the Secularist faith

je suis charlieNot since the Danish cartoons case of 2005, has the freedom to express or offend come under such threat in Europe. Eight journalists and two police officers gunned down, and several injured in an attack on the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, is a chilling escalation of radical outfits waging war against European democracy and liberalism. World leaders and Muslim leaders condemned the attack, yet this case has now become a reminder of how multiculturalism can be pushed to rest on the tip of a needle.

European secularism has been under threat from a two-pronged political attack for several years. On one side, are the Islamist radicals and on the other side is the political right wing which calls for a blanket closure on immigration from Muslim countries. In the aftermath of this attack, as fear and anger spreads across Europe, the political right wing in different nations is preparing for a major revival campaign. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, France’s right wing political party issued a statement on her party’s website linking the attack to ‘unregulated’ immigration to France from Muslim countries. Le Pen is famous for her 2010 statement where she compared Muslims praying on the streets to the Nazi occupation of France. Le Pen’s party in fact gave a strong challenge to Francois Hollande in the 2012 Presidential elections. In Britain, immediately after the news broke, Nick Griffin – the chief of the right wing political outfit the British National Party tweeted, “Will liberals get the message? Europe & Islam don’t mix! “Vicious, wicked faith.”

marine-le-penThe attack in Paris also came a day after thousands in Germany took part in anti-Islam rallies in the cities of Berlin, Cologne and Dresden. With this latest Clash of Civilisations – governments across Europe have a major challenge ahead of them. The tragedy in Paris is now a test for their centrist principles. They need to stay true to their call for national unity and cannot allow both the attackers and the political right to define Islam in this mould. The governments need to protect Muslim citizens from retaliation attacks and discrimination, while reining in radical organisations to prevent the political right from taking advantage of people’s fear, panic and irrationality. As sentiments are on the precipice of upsetting the harmony of multicultural Europe, there are hawks baiting people on both sides. It is the duty of the states and civil society to make people feel safe and secure and actively guide opinion to maintain harmony. They must counter the political right for exploiting people’s fear and appeal to their citizens to stand together, keep each other safe and assure them the law will not bend to fear.

Secularism, tolerance and democracy are fragile concepts, which become tough and strong due to continued faith. This is the time where the people who matter, from a state leader to a local community leader need to protect faith of secularism, and embolden people to hold on to the ideals that make them free and fearless. It is in moments like these where I remember the famous words of CBS news legend and civil rights crusader Edward Murrow when he defended the freedom of speech – words appealing to the human condition in times of crisis. He said, “We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak and to defend. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the results.”