Kunal Kamra to SC: No one beyond criticism
Comedian Kunal Kamra has told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that “to believe any institution of power in a democracy is beyond criticism is like saying migrants need to find their way back home during an ill-planned, nationwide lockdown: it is irrational and undemocratic”.
The affidavit was filed in response to a notice asking why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him for his tweets about the judiciary. Excerpts:
“Some people who did not find my tweets funny have approached this court seeking that I be prosecuted….
“I believe there need be no defence for jokes. Jokes are based on a comedian’s perception, which they use to make the audience that shares that perception laugh. These jokes are not reality, and don’t claim to be so. Most people do not react to jokes that don’t make them laugh; they ignore them like our political leaders ignore their critics.”
Kamra’s affidavit continued: “Through my work, I attempt to abide by comedy’s tenet of comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.
“Take for instance the joke ‘Behind every successful Indian businessman there is a nationalised bank’. The humour attempts to blunt the grimness of the situation, and offers a measure of comfort to the afflicted, including the families of citizens who find themselves unable to withdraw their hard-earned money from their bank accounts.
“Jokes like these at best make the comfortable squirm in their plush chairs, even as they sit secure in the knowledge that a joke cannot make the heavens fall.
“My tweets were not published with the intention of diminishing the faith of the people in the highest court of our democracy…. The suggestion that my tweets could shake the foundations of the most powerful court in the world is an overestimation of my abilities.
“Just as the Supreme Court values the faith the public places in it (and seeks to protect it by the exercise of its criminal contempt jurisdiction), it should also trust the public not to form its opinions of the court on the basis of a few jokes on Twitter. The public’s faith in the judiciary is found(ed) on the institution’s own actions, and not on any criticism or commentary about it….
“Judges of our constitutional court are amongst the most powerful people in our country. They have extraordinary powers over the fundamental rights and lives of citizens of this country, and their office and tenure are constitutionally protected to shield them from political interference.
“However, I believe that constitutional offices — including judicial offices — know no protection from jokes. I do not believe that any high authority, including judges, would find themselves unable to discharge their duties only on account of being the subject of satire or comedy.
“Irreverence and hyperbole are essential tools for the comedic enterprise. A comic raises questions on issues of public interest in their own unique way. The language and style I resort to are not with the intention of insult, but to draw attention to and prompt an engagement with issues that I believe are relevant to our democracy and which have also been raised in the public domain by more serious and learned commentators.
“Comedy does not permit an artist the luxury of articulating the basis of jokes through long, nuanced essays or measured prose. Brevity… continues to be the soul of comedy (and Twitter — with its 280 character limit)….
“We are witnessing an assault on the freedom of speech and expression, with comedians like Munawar Farooqi being jailed for jokes that they have not even made, and school students being interrogated for sedition.
“At such a time, I hope that this court will demonstrate that the freedom of speech and expression is a cardinal constitutional value, and recognise that the possibility of being offended is a necessary incident to the exercise of this right.
“Should powerful people and institutions continue to show an inability to tolerate rebuke or criticism, we would be reduced to a country of incarcerated artists and flourishing lapdogs. If this court believes I have crossed a line and wants to shut down my Internet indefinitely, then I too will write Happy Independence Day postcards every 15th August, just like my Kashmiri friends.”
In the affidavit filed on Thursday, Kamra said he would respect the court’s decision. “I will not vilify this bench or the Supreme Court in this matter specifically because that would actually be contempt of court.”