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*B&B Exclusive* Professor Sharmila Ghuge on the decline of Indian values, social elitism, and why she filed the #AIBRoast PIL
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*B&B Exclusive* Professor Sharmila Ghuge on the decline of Indian values, social elitism, and why she filed the #AIBRoast PIL

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So why did Prof. Sharmila Ghuge do it? What was it about a widely viewed, and subsequently pulled down, comedy show that prompted this teacher of constitutional law to approach the Bombay High Court with a public interest litigation? It is just another case of moral policing, of over zealousness in “protecting” the country’s social fabric?  Or is there some truth, some legal basis for initiating the judicial process? Lastly, has this entire exercise simply been a publicity stunt, a means of ensuring those five minutes of fame?

The questions are fairly direct, and straightforward. The answers?

Not so much.

Professor Sharmila Ghuge says that it was a discussion on a news channel that piqued her curiosity. And after reading the newspaper reports on All India Bakchod’s Roast, she decided to discuss the show with her students.

I found that in a class of forty, around thirty-four students had seen it. Out of these, six said it was ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’. The rest felt that such language should not be used. A few of them argued passionately against it, while a few others argued on freedom of speech and expression.

Given the strong reactions of her students, Sharmila Ghuge decided that she ought to see the show for herself. The contents of the show, were not quite to her liking. Far from it.

I found a few statements extremely derogatory and the rest were very filthy and vulgar. I thought that I must take up this issue.

And take up the issue she most certainly did. In her PIL [Full Text] before the Bombay High Court, Sharmila Ghuge has made the State government, and Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police as Respondents. Represented by Dewani Associates, Sharmila Ghuge has also sought a number of reliefs, some of which she dicussed in the course of the interview.

Why did she decide to approach the courts though?

The judiciary has at least given me a chance to let my voice be heard. Others would not have done that.

And if she found the contents so filthy and vulgar, why didn’t she exercise the option of simply not watching the show? Or is this a typical example of decreasing levels of tolerance, and an increasing affinity to be offended?

Whether the AIB video is offensive or not has become irrelevant. The real question we should be asking is whether our sensibilities are so delicate that we would sacrifice our rich public discourse and the new media that carry our chatter, because we cannot handle being offended now and then.

As for Prof. Sharmila Ghuge, didn’t the video categorically mention that the show may not be to everyone’s taste?

“Agreed. There is a statement made at the beginning of the show saying that it is going to be offensive for some people.. those who are likely to be offended can leave. But even if you make such a statement, it would be limited to the people watching the show live. When it is uploaded on YouTube, it is going to be watched by many more people who will pay no heed to the statement.”

For Sharmila Ghuge it would appear that it is not the contents of the show alone that are the cause for concern. Rather, she is concerned about the lack of State regulation on both, the contents of the show as well as the medium used to broadcast it, namely Youtube.

And this can be seen in the relief that has been sought.

“The first thing is that, the person who is granting permission for these shows should scrutinize what the permission is being given for … there should be monitoring by [State] officers during the show.

[Lastly] YouTube must be regulated. Anybody can upload anything on YouTube, it is not monitored. As a result, cybercrimes are on the rise, teenagers are getting into crime and there are crimes against women.

There should be a restriction even in roasts, which I understand, are meant for such dirty jokes. But these jokes should not cross the limit of vulgarity.”

It is a statement that begs the obvious question. Who sets this “limit” of vulgarity, who is to decide on when humour, or attempts to humour, become illegalities? What then, is to be the yardstick for measurning public standards of right and wrong?

This is certainly no new problem. Censorship laws have long been the subject of debate, in India and elsewhere. Understandably, these debates are continuous and fluid, with arguments changing as societal mores undergo change. Within a legal context, the biggest problem may be with the very definition of “obscenity”.

It is a problem media law expert Apar Gupta describes in this column, where he says that,

“[I]t is evident that obscenity to a large degree is a vague concept which will rely on a case-by-case determination, dependent on the facts of each case, in which a judicially trained mind (as opposed to an artistically inclined one) will examine the artistic merits and the potential illegality.”

But coming back to the question at hand – who, according to Sharmila Ghuge, prescribes the limit of public morality, of public decency?

“The concept of decency and morality has not been defined under any law. At present, it would depend on how the judiciary interprets it. Morality should be defined on basis of the social environment of the country. The mentality and the social scenario of India and that of the West is very different. This show was meant for particular classes. When it goes on YouTube, it is accessible to the masses.”

It is midway into the interview that Prof. Sharmila Ghuge raises one of the lesser explored points in the entire controversy. It is here that Ghuge raises an argument that veers away from the strictly legal, and into the grey area of cultural relativism, of understanding that there is no absolute “right” and “wrong”. The pressing need to acknowledge that a “right act” also depends on the social context of both the observer and the protaganist.

“The thought process of the masses in India is completely different from how certain classes think. Whatever goes to the public should be viewed from the public eye, not from the perspective of Bollywood stars or high class of the society. For such people, greeting each other with a kiss is normal, but people from say the middle class classes wouldn’t do the same.”

There is some truth to what she says; cultural relativism within a country such as India is here to stay. But where does this end? How does one decide where to draw that balance, that line between what is permissible and what is not?

Prof. Sharmila Ghuge admits that this is a difficult task. But it is a vital one, she argues, and one that needs urgent attention. Failure to do so, would have catastrophic consequences.

I agree that there is a thin line, but if you want to uphold the social fabric of the country, you have to maintain this line. Otherwise, you will see the decline of our culture and values. Already, we have come far away from the path.

As things stand, the Bombay High Court shall hear the matter on March 3, 2015 by which time the Respondents are expected to file their replies. In addition, a trial court in Girgaum, Mumbai has directed an FIR to be registered against the comedy group and some participants. In the meanwhile, AIB has filed an intervention application [Full Text] seeking a dismissal of the PIL. They are being represented by Mahesh Jethmalani. The court may very well decide on this intervention application on the next date of hearing.

As for Ghuge, the final question asked is whether the PIL was simply a publicity stunt? Is Ghuge following in the footsteps of the likes of ML Sharma?

If I wanted to do it for publicity, I would have caught hold of a [celebrity] or a political leader. To be frank, a political party offered me their support, but I strictly said, ‘No, thank you.’