The Mahatma Exception: Your freedom of expression stops at Gandhi
By Sandip Roy
Mahatma Gandhi was obviously a unique figure in India’s history.
But it now turns out that he is in a class of his own even in the eyes of the law. Justice might be blind and everyone, high or low, technically equal before it, but there is apparently the Mahatma Exception.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court has ruled that the use of profane language against Gandhi is unacceptable even if it is done in the name of satire or art.
At issue is a satirical Marathi poem written in 1984 - Gandhi Mala Bhetla Hota (I met Gandhi). It was published by an in-house Marathi magazine in 1994 which is circulated between banks and their employees. The Patit Pawan Sanghatana filed a complaint against both the poet and the publisher on the now familiar grounds of “using obscene language and creating enmity between different sections of society.”
The Supreme Court just ruled on the obscenity charges. And even though it’s been striking out for freedom of expression lately, it drew the line at the Father of the Nation. The buck, or at least the rupee note with its Gandhi head, stops there.
What is peculiar about the case though is the judge even wrote a poem in the middle of the trial and handled it to the publisher’s lawyer Gopal Subramaniam for his reaction to it.
Then Justice Dipak Misra drew a parallel with Queen Victoria. “Somebody puts words in the mouth of Queen Victoria, how the British society would have reacted. The use of these words troubles us. There should not be curtailment of artistic freedom but I have not come across any English author who has written about Queen Victoria,” said Justice Misra.
Thus in a twist of fate whose irony might have escaped the judge, Queen Victoria was summoned up to protect the honour of the man who helped the sun set on her empire.
It’s not clear if the justices were aware that the British had a satirical puppet show called Spitting Image which has mercilessly lampooned their politicians and even the royal family. It has invented affairs for John Major, turned Margaret Thatcher into a cigar-chomping cross-dresser, and made Queen Elizabeth II pick clothes from rubbish bins while the gin-swilling Queen Mother had an affair with jockey Lester Piggott. The Queen might not have been amused but has kept a stiff upper lip.
What our learned judges could not stomach apparently were the cuss words.
“You can lampoon, satire or criticize the historical personalities but you can’t attribute expletives to them.”
That, in a blinding example of Victorian prudery, becomes the ultimate sacrilege. That's why Arvind Kejriwal's use of cuss words about the Bhushan-Yadav faction is even worthy of a sting.
Gandhi, by the way, was not a saint. Albert Einstein famously said “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarcely believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” The generations to come have progressively drained the man of “flesh and blood” and turned him into a statue on a pedestal or a portrait on the wall behind a bureaucrat. And when a court rules that a satirical poem cannot put expletives in his mouth it is just nailing that man-made halo even more firmly to him.
The achievements of Gandhi are extraordinary precisely because he was human like everyone else around him. He was not a superhuman blessed with supernatural powers that enabled him to lead a Satyagraha movement. But the generations after him have greater investment in the sanctified myth of the Mahatma than the reality of the man, flawed like all of us but still a Great Leader.
And in the end what is so “bad” about “bad” words? At a time when Gandhi’s views on race are challenged, when scurrilous innuendos about his sleeping experiments are not uncommon, does a clearly satirical poem really desecrate the Father of the Nation just by putting expletives in his mouth? Anyway it’s not like Fathers of Nations and salty language are mutually exclusive. Many leaders are famous for their impressive repertoire of colourful swear words. When Richard Nixon was criticized for being potty-mouthed, he said those frowning at him should have heard Lyndon B Johnson. And John F. Kennedy as well. CNN even did a list of the 16 salty-tongued US politicians and being on that list is the least of Hillary Clinton's worries as she runs for President. Yet we routinely wipe our histories clean. Claire Suddath writes in Time Magazine:
"For all we know, Thomas Jefferson could have cursed up a blue streak when he debated the possible revisions to the Declaration of Independence with the Second Continental Congress. We'll never know; the drafting committee didn't keep notes on its meetings. Abraham Lincoln was never caught on tape insulting anyone — mainly because audiotape hadn't been invented yet."
However that did not prevent a controversy from erupting about whether there was too much cussing in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and battle-lines were drawn to measure how much exactly might Lincoln have cursed.
But that was about historical accuracy. This poem is satire.
In a country where freedom of expression is under attack from so many sides, the Gandhi exception might seem a very small one. The court did say a certain leniency could be shown if the personality was someone else.
But who knows whether tomorrow that same circle of protection will not be extended around another VVIP the powers that be want to deify.
Subhas Bose. Jawaharlal Nehru. Narendra Modi. Where one exception comes, others follow.
And we know, if nothing else, our leaders love to claim that they following in Gandhi's footsteps.
The author's education and leanings show through in this article. Pity that India must always be held to imitation of colonial and imperial powers in order to be legit in the minds of her youth.