A pall of gloom spread across the country when news of cartoonist and satirist Jaspal Bhatti’s death was flashed on television screens. The sadness was not surprising. Bhatti was one of India’s most loved entertainers, and his brand of comedy and satire stung really hard without being aggressive.
Bhatti’s death is also a cruel metaphor for the death of satire in India. During the peak of his prowess and popularity, Bhatti was simultaneously one of India’s most loved and most feared entertainers. He was loved because every single moment of his TV shows was a reflection of India’s socio-political morass. He was feared by the authorities because, without mocking them with abusive and aggressive language, he made them the butt of his jokes. And the nation laughed with him.
India’s slow decline into overtly confrontational politics and the growing intolerance across all social spectrums meant that he could make jokes at the expense of anyone. Last year, he was forced by the Chandigarh unit of Shiv Sena to publicly apologise for some statements he made on political corruption.
Such is our intolerance that political parties, communities and even influential individuals see a conspiracy where there is none. We have forgotten to laugh at ourselves, and that is the biggest burden Bhatti would have carried to the Great Beyond.
The government has managed to stifle free speech online, especially when it tends to poke fun at or criticise political worthies. It has blocked websites and Facebook pages, banned Twitter IDs and effectively threatened anyone who dares to question the government.
Bhatti was the perfect antidote to our intolerance. He would make us laugh and cry at the same time. Every generation needs a Jaspal Bhatti, to keep us grounded, and to make authorities wince. The tragedy of this generation is that we do not have a Jaspal Bhatti yet.