Why the Mumbai Police Were Reluctant to File FIRs against AIB

The All India Backchod (AIB) Knockout that was held on 20 December 2014. The show recently ran into controversy with FIR registrations against them in both Mumbai and Pune.
21 February, 2015

On 20 December 2014, comedian Rohan Joshi took the stage at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Worli, Mumbai, and faced an audience of nearly four thousand people. It was twenty minutes into the All India Backchod (AIB) Knockout, a two-hour long, no-holds barred roast—a comedic format in which the guests of honour, in this case Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, are subjected to jokes at their expense. The jokes weren’t restricted to the duo, though, and the night soon turned into a carnival of humour replete with jibes targeted at the rich and famous. Joshi, a part of the foursome that forms the comedy collective AIB, was one of the hosts of the evening.

What followed was unintentionally prophetic as it encapsulated the essence of the outrage directed at the show barely a month later. Joshi articulated what he thought was going on in the minds of the audience members, “Why are they saying in public what we say at parties?”

I couldn’t help but think of this line when I went to meet advocate Abha Singh at her office in Fort, Mumbai, nearly a week after she had lodged a complaint on behalf of Santosh Daundkar—an RTI activist who had exposed the Adarsh scam in Mumbai—against the fourteen people who were a part of the AIB Knockout. The accused included Jayantilal Shah, the president of the National Sports Club of India (NSCI); Ravinder Aggarwal, the secretary general of the NSCI; Karan Johar; Tanmay Bhat; Rohan Joshi; Gursimran Khamba; Ashish Shakya; Ranveer Singh; Arjun Kapoor; Aditi Mittal; Rajeev Masand; Deepika Padukone; and Alia Bhatt. Singh, a women’s rights activist, has been an integral part of several high profile cases such as those of the Palghar girls who were hauled up for a Facebook post on Bal Thackeray’s death and the Salman Khan hit-and-run case.

“They should have done it in their house,” Singh told me. “When you make it [the jokes] in a public place, it becomes the duty of the public, of the enlightened citizen, to see that such things don’t happen.”

Singh wasn’t a part of the audience that evening in December. In fact, she was oblivious to the existence of this event until it was uploaded on the internet. On 28 January, AIB uploaded an edited version of the closed-door, ticketed show on their YouTube channel. Before long, it exploded into the urban consciousness clocking eight million views within five days.

Protests against AIB began shortly after their video was released, and escalated with Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ declaration on 2 February that action would be taken against the organisers if the programme was found to be “vulgar and in violation of the law.” Following the backlash, Maharashtra’s minister of Tourism and Culture Affairs, Vinod Tawde, attempted to steady the boat by tweeting from his official account soon after, stating that there would be no moral policing. But the dominoes had started to fall. On the same day, Akhilesh Tiwari, a former member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the president of a little-known organisation called the Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha submitted an application to the Saki Naka police station. Barely twenty-four hours later, the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum approached the Bandra police station to file an application, which was forwarded to the police station at Tardeo. Both of these bodies called out the show for hurting cultural and religious sentiments, apart from being offensive and abusive. A day later, on 3 February, AIB removed the video of the roast from its YouTube channel.

Interestingly, neither of the two applications were converted into a formal complaint in Mumbai. The first salvo came on 5 February when Wazir Shaikh, an inspector from the Pune Crime Branch, lodged an FIR, charging all the organisers, crew members, participants and actress Deepika Padukone for obscenity under IPC sections 292 and 294, among other crimes, while YouTube was named in the FIR for transmitting sexually explicit material online under Section 67 and 67(a) of the IT Act. Padukone, who was not a participant, but only a reveller, had apparently erred in letting Ranveer Singh kiss her at the start of the show. According to the complaint, it was an act that was done “openly, in a public place” thus “amounting to obscenity.”

On 9 February, I met DCP Prashant Holkar, the zonal head of the Saki Naka police station. I was curious: how could the same content, governed by the same laws, produce two distinct reactions from the Mumbai and Pune Police? “By definition, “obscenity” is something that offends people or can cause them to feel shame. But there are no clear parameters to it. Our CP—commissioner of police—is very clear, no moral policing is to be done from our end.” Holkar explained. “Now that the FIR is already lodged in Pune, there is no need to duplicate it. The Pune police is already investigating.”

It was perhaps why the Tardeo police, too, were reluctant to lodge a formal complaint. After dragging their  feet on the Christian body’s application, the station received another one from advocate Singh on 7 February. Sensing no progress on her application, Singh told me that she decided to approach a magistrate court four days later, following which the Tardeo police were directed to lodge an FIR.

The fresh charges that were framed were of a more serious nature compared to the ones in Pune. The comedians were accused of criminal conspiracy, insulting the modesty of women, and breaking environment norms. The list of the fourteen people accused comprised the heads of the National Sports Club of India, ten of the eleven participants, including actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, director Karan Johar and two members of the audience—Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt. Sonakshi Sinha was conspicuous by her absence, as were stand-up comedian Abish Mathew and Raghu Ram of MTV Roadies fame.

I asked Singh about the rationale behind holding two spectators in an audience of four thousand responsible for these acts.

“They were a part of the script,” Singh alleged. “They were told that those jokes would be cracked on them. Had it been any other woman subjected to sexual innuendos—any self-respecting woman—she would have slapped the anchor.” Singh maintained that she didn’t know about most of the participants, and the names of the accused had been included in her petition after she researched them. She attributed that as the reason behind the exclusions of Sinha and Raghu Ram, although she seem to think that she had apportioned the blame by adding “other unknown accused” in her complaint. Celebrities, she added, should be a role model for the youth, and not participate in making obscenity glamorous.

“We have done fourteen. But what is stopping Mumbai Police from lodging the other names? Nothing stops them from adding twenty-four more names,” said Singh.

When I met the DCP S Jaykumar on 16 February, the zonal head of the Tardeo police station, he avoided mentioning any reluctance on their part to act on the previous application, but he did tell me that it was only on the instructions of the court that they registered the FIR. At the time the court stepped in, Jaykumar said, the application was being “checked on different angles.”

“We had differing opinions [on whether to register an FIR] then,” he said, refusing to elucidate who the “we” were. He then went on to reiterate the Mumbai police’s stand against moral policing.

One of the aspects of the case unanimously cited by all the stakeholders was the lack of guidelines on what constitutes obscenity. In the first week of February, Sharmila Ghuge, a professor at the Jitendra Chauhan Law College in Vile Parle, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the High Court demanding that the government frame guidelines for such programmes and begin regulating YouTube, citing the potential dilution of morality through obscene content. In the conversation I had with her, even as she made a passionate case for how the AIB Knockout contributed to the rupturing of society’s moral fabric, Ghuge admitted that there needs to be a clear definition on obscenity.

It is this ambiguity that is often leveraged to lodge criminal proceedings in cases such as this one, as was witnessed more recently when a criminal case was filed against Aamir Khan—who, ironically, voiced his displeasure with the Knockout recently—for obscenity in the poster of his recent blockbuster,  PK. Mihir Desai, a human rights lawyer, told me over the phone that while the courts have become liberal with time, sections 292 and 294, which relate to obscenity, have stayed as vague as they were in 1860.

“The problem in India is that lodging of FIR is the easiest thing to do in certain cases. The power to allow it is equally vested with the police. But just because something is distasteful to you, you shouldn’t lodge an FIR,” said Desai.

In the heat of the debate, AIB went incommunicado after it had removed the video, resurfacing again to announce that they had met with the Archdiocese of Bombay and offered an unconditional apology for any offense caused to religious sentiments by their jokes. Even as the copies surfaced on torrent sites and were uploaded by irrepressible netizens through their own YouTube accounts, AIB went a step further and proceeded to take down their archive of podcasts from all the portals on which they had been uploaded.

In the course of reporting for this article, I tried in vain to contact AIB for a quote, but they chose to not respond. By then, they had already summed up their stand in a Facebook post: “Let’s all take a deep breath. They’re just jokes.”

Omkar Khandekar is a journalist from Mumbai, and an alumnus of Cardiff University. His reporting from India, the Maldives and the United Kingdom has appeared in numerous publications, including The CaravanOpen and Scroll.