By Somasekhar Sundaresan
One of the indicators which point to the contradictory nature of Indian society is how we possess a high degree of tolerance for pejorative speech while being prickly of comedians who look to poke fun at our cultural stereotypes.
The Parliament is in session again. As lawmakers assemble in Delhi, it is the season for unparliamentary and politically incorrect remarks. Union Minister Giriraj Singh provided a flying start, questioning whether the Congress would have rallied behind Sonia Gandhi had she been black. Speculation about whether he broke into tears unable to handle a dressing down from the Prime Minister is what is making news now.
In the last session of Parliament, Sharad Yadav got mired in controversy talking about how Indian authorities granted permission to Leslee Udwin to interview convicts in prison because she was white. His point that an Indian filmmaker would not have been given the same access resonated with many but his remarks about south Indian women being “saavli” tripped him up and tied him down in knots.
Race and skin colour particularly stand out as sensitivities that the subcontinent is insensitive to. A society obsessed with “fairness creams” – now available for all genders – does not even find it offensive to comment about the colour of the skin. Political correctness in this department is conspicuous by its absence. Kalyan Jewellers, a south Indian merchant, has made an advertisement featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan royally lounging on a couch with an emaciated dark skinned child slave holding a larger-than-hissize umbrella over her. Copied from similar portraits of European royalty being served by black slaves, the advertisement has drawn swift and crisp admonition from civil society, publicly requesting Aishwarya to distance herself from slavery and child labour.
She has issued an official statement suggesting that she was not involved in the creative addition of the child slave to her photograph. A statement attributed to her suggests she believes the insertion of the child in the picture to be the “creative” work of her client. It is not yet clear if she took the opportunity of a public platform with Kalyan Jewellers to make a diplomatic point about the issue. Unlikely, since apart from being a skin-colour-obsessed society, “chotus” working as domestic labour is as widespread as domestic violence even among the literate in India.
Apart from race, gender is part of the trail of thorns in political incorrectness in India. One had to only read the transcript of proceedings in Parliament when the post-Nirbhaya amendments to criminal law were being debated. Some MPs said the kind of things that convict Mukesh Singh would later say in India’s Daughter (without the attendant denigration). Sanjay Nirupam, quick to defend attacks on his leader Sonia Gandhi, did not think twice about attacking Smriti Irani’s character with: “Pehle to tum TV par tumke lagati thi. Pata hai tumhara charitra”.
Insensitivity is not the preserve of just the lawmakers. Recently, members of the highest judiciary locked horns. The Chief Justice of India organised a judges’ conference over the long Good Friday weekend. When two colleagues pointed out that Good Friday was an important marker for Christians and one of them said he had plans with his family outside Delhi, the Chief Justice wrote back to him questioning his commitment to the judiciary.
Sikhs get commented on as subjects of humour, mainly due to their different appearance, even in court rooms – a former Bombay High Court judge who became Chief Justice had once remarked about how being a sole Sikh in the court, the lawyer before him deserved to win (indeed, in a lighter vein).
A few years ago, Parliament published a newer version of a handbook of “unparliamentary” words and phrases for the guidance of our lawmakers. Writing rules for how to conduct oneself is a race to the bottom – the approach has yielded a silly checklist – outlawed for use inside Parliament are phrases such as “source of amusement”, “communist” and “ringmaster”. Terming the usage of “communist” as unparliamentary can itself be attacked as being unparliamentary.
Political correctness will take a long time to become second nature in India – potentially, never will. Yet, we can be so thin-skinned that comedians have to pay a heavy price for picking on stereotypes in their gigs. Truly another area where India is a land of contradictions.