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Rising intolerance: Mumbai Police FIR over AIB’s Modi meme

By Nilanjana Goswami

In a turn of events propelled by social media outrage, the popular comic group AIB recently got into trouble over a meme that they posted on Twitter. A doppelgänger of the PM was spotted at a railway station recently, and his picture was taken and widely shared on social networking sites.

AIB, like many other Twitteratis, took their cue from this to spread some humour. AIB founder Tanmay Bhat made it into a meme, posting the doppelganger’s photo beside an actual shot of the Prime Minister’s face with the Snapchat dog-filter, with the words ‘#wanderlust’ on the latter.

The story behind

The meme was obviously intended to be some harmless humour directed at the PM’s frequent visits abroad, a subject that social media users are used to bantering about. However, many social media users found that the meme was in bad taste.

Many kept sharing the meme, calling out founders Tanmay Bhatt and Rohan Joshi as relying on tasteless attempts at jokes. Some tried to identify them as hypocrites who would create such content and then discuss how the BJP government curbs freedom of expression. Eventually, AIB deleted the post, fearing more outrage. This is when the debate got much worse as users started trolling, name-calling, and branding all the four members as cowards.

A surprisingly large group called out this perceived hypocrisy. Since quite a lot of AIB’s viral content carries a strong criticism of the Congress party, the previous UPA government, and some of its important policymakers, many saw their decision to delete the offensive post as one taken out of fear of the current government than out of prudence.

Involvement of the police

Initially unresponsive, founders Tanmay Bhatt and Rohan Joshi took to Twitter as soon as the accusations started. They tried to make the offended users see the insignificance of the situation. Although both of them were quite defiant in their stances, on Friday, the Mumbai cyber police filed a FIR against Tanmay Bhatt for allegedly ‘insulting’ the PM through the post.

The FIR was filed under section 500 (defamation) of IPC and 67 IT act (Punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) taken at a cyber police station at Bandra-Kurla Complex.

This is not the first time that AIB has had to face flak for its unconventional approach to humour. The group shot to controversy with a roast comedy show that was organised on January 2015, starring Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. The backlash it received subsequently was huge. It resulted in multiple FIRs lodged with the Mumbai police for abusive language and scurrilous content, and threats from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. It was a wide-spread phenomenon both on social media and mass media that captured the country’s attention. The group apologised but stood by their views.

India’s comedy scene

Since the roast, almost all of their big hits, ranging from podcasts and videos to even simple memes, have come under scrutiny. This situation is, in fact, the latest in a trend that has particularly gripped the up-and-coming comedy scene in India.

In recent times, some of the acts by individual comedians have come under fire. They were persecuted for allegedly having misused their freedom of expression to slander important personages and institutions. This persecution has often come in the form of active censorship, threats, and bout after bout of social-media outrage and trolling.

As a consequence, many of these comedians such as Daniel Fernandes, have taken on unconventional, honest, and witty approaches while discussing social problems. Many like Kaneez Surka and Aditi Mittal have become powerful advocates for feminist issues. AIB itself has spearheaded lots of discussions on whether or not the BJP government has been systematically stifling the freedom of expression and the right to free speech.

Curtailing freedom of speech?

This incident illustrates a violent expression of the same religious, political, and social intolerance that has been on the rise since the BJP government came to power at the Centre. Completely blowing harmless humour out of proportion to construe it as a crime certainly attests to the widespread ignorance, stubbornness, and lack of objectivity of the people who gave rise to such a situation in the first place.

With the rise of a certain brand of right-wing politics that effectively demands unquestioning obedience with regards to its policy, the silver lining is the fact that the pressure exerted on these people, along with others, only serves to make their counter-arguments stronger.


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