When an April Fool’s Day joke is not funny: Zahir Janmohamed
This is a guest post by ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: This morning, April 1, Google announced its latest product: Gmail blue. It is email except for one critical difference—everything is blue.
“I can’t believe I waited so long for this,” a hilarious Google video says.
It works because it is funny and so obviously absurd—you would have to be, well, a fool to believe this April fool’s day joke. But the Google prank is also something else: harmless. It does not hurt anyone nor it does not trigger painful memories.
When does an April fool’s day cross the line?
News site FirstPost may have written the textbook example of what an April Fool’s day joke should not be.
Today FirstPost ran an article with the following headline: “Here it comes: An apology from Modi for Gujarat riots.”
The fake quotes by Narendra Modi included this line, which sorry if I am just being prude, does not strike me as funny:
“Innocent people were killed, (the) atmosphere was tense and emotions were running high,” noted Modi, recalling the worst days of the riots. “Any way you look at it, it was a shameful blot on the image of Vibrant Gujarat.”
In italics at the bottom of the article, the FirstPost editors posted this note in italics:
We thought we might use the occasion of April Fools’ Day to have a whimsical look at the manner in which even grave matters of public discourse acquire a farcical edge when the political spin doctors go to work on them. It is not our intention here to make light of the gravity of riots situation. Riots are, of course, deadly serious matters.
Onto our crater sized wound, FirstPost adds this salt on top: “We hope you will read this article in the spirit in which it was intended.”
Almost all of us have experienced being made fun of because the way we look or dress or talk. Does it hurt any less when someone adds after the insult, “Hey I am just joking”?
If they are joking about your lousy dance moves, maybe. But if a person makes a joke about a relative of yours who died in a car crash, would we find that funny or acceptable?
It is unclear what prompted the FirstPost editors to run this article, aside from crass tastes and lousy editorial judgment, But it is nonetheless revealing, in particular this line: “The politics that gets played with riots – and the demands for an apology – is enough to make fools of us all.”
Is it? Is the demand for an apology so trivial that we can make a joke about those who still seek an apology for 2002? And what would happen if the apology from Modi were in fact real? Would a Modi apology really make a difference?
Consider the following story.
In 2011, I met with Fatima (named changed), a Gujarati Muslim who I met in the relief camps during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
I had not seen her since the 2002 riots and when I visited her in 2011, I made the mistake of feeling too comfortable on our first meeting by asking her about her experiences during the 2002 riots.
“No, I will not talk about 2002.”
Why wouldn’t Fatima share her story with me, or with anyone, for that matter? Part of the reason is universal: a person’s pain is often exacerbated when their agony is denied or trivialized. And part of the reason is that Fatima has not seen any justice for her family members whose homes were burned down in the 2002 riots. What then is the use of talking, when so little action has been taken to help the 2002 victims?
We should understand this silence and where it comes from. Think about a painful experience in your own life. It might be something others think is “small,” like watching a dog get run over by a car, but in your mind it has caused you trauma. The remarkable and beautiful thing about the human mind is that each person reacts in different ways to the same events.
If you begin sharing your experience with others, it can often be therapeutic, especially if others show sympathy and acknowledge the reason for your trauma. But if you open up and people say, “Oh it was just a dog—let it go,” it might backfire. It might cause you more hurt.
This is why Fatima and so many others I have interviewed who faced horrors in 2002 remain guarded because it is, in a sense, a form of self-protection. After all, when they share their experiences, they are often told to forget, to move on, that their pain is not real, or as FirstPost worded it, that “the demands for an apology – is enough to make fools of us all.”
After meeting Fatima over a period of a few months, she called me to her office. It was an early July afternoon and the tardy monsoon had just arrived.
A year before the riots, Fatima moved to a Hindu locality where she was able to get an apartment using her husband’s name, who is not Muslim. On the first night of the riots, February 27, 2002, she saw a mob walk down her street holding fire torches and carrying swords.
Fatima’s neighbors warned her: you should leave as we will not be able to protect you. As Fatima’s husband stood guard on their roof top, she filled buckets of water and sat by the door, waiting for the mobs to come.
“It was ridiculous to sit by the door with all those buckets. What would that have done? But I was not thinking straight. I could not. I was too scared. I just thought they will come and rape me, that this is my fate.”
Fortunately they never came that night and when the sun rose, she and her husband moved to a relative’s house in an all Muslim neighborhood, never to return again to live in a Hindu locality.
Fatima began to cry as she told her story.
“I don’t like telling this story. I am tired of people thinking that I have exaggerated this or that this is not important. I know what I saw but bas, that’s it, I need to stop talking about this.”
I apologised. I felt awful, I told her, tears in my eyes.
She stared at the ground.
“No it is ok. I know you went through a lot too.”
Yes satire and humor should be daring and it should challenge us but there are certain lines that should not be crossed, as FirstPost has done so today. How do we determine that line? It differs for each person but I will hazard to suggest a few categories: rape/violence against women, child abuse, and public tragedies—be it the Bhopal gas disaster, the ongoing violence in Kashmir, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and many more such examples.
But supposing today’s apology were real: what would a Modi apology do to ameliorate Fatima’s pain?
But it would have to be a well worded apology wherein Modi accepts culpability and not the half baked apologies we have come to expect from politician that sound like this: “I am sorry if you felt that I have hurt you.”
If Modi apologised for the riots and made it clear that he personally failed to act in 2002, that he instructed his police officers not to help Muslims during the violence, that he inflamed much of the hatred towards Muslims, then it would give vindication to people like Fatima who have been insulted, ostracized, and even threatened in Gujarat for making these very points about Modi.
But would it be enough?
I continued to meet Fatima and her family, some of whom lost their homes in 2002. Few spoke about a desire for an apology from Modi. What they wanted was a better life in Gujarat, something that has been especially difficult since Modi’s rule began.
Her brother, for example, spoke the pain of living in Gujarat and his desire to be accepted: “People just don’t think we belong as Muslims, as if we are lesser humans here.”
One of her relatives talked about the paltry compensation she received after her home was burned down. Another spoke about the lack of decent schools in the Muslim areas of Gujarat and the unwillingness of the Modi government to release minority scholarships, despite orders by the Gujarat High Court.
But mostly Fatima said it was the lack of justice that made it hard to live in Gujarat.
“No one was really punished. That scares me because what is stopping them from doing this again?”
An apology from Modi about 2002 would be big, no doubt. But what would be more commendable is for Modi to grant Gujarat Muslims the justice they have been denied for so long.
(Zahir Janmohamed is a writer in Ahmedabad.)