On Rhinos and Free Speech

Geethanjali Rajmohan
4 min readAug 23, 2020

We had to study French- Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1960) as part of our undergrad course. A widely popular absurdist play, Rhinoceros is a satirical take on the totalitarian regime that was prevalent across the world during his time, especially the Nazi forces.

Last week, the Supreme Court found human rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court over a couple of tweets he had shared. One was a remark about the failure of the judiciary in upholding justice in our country, and the other was a picture of the Chief Justice of India riding a motorcycle without wearing a mask, during the pandemic times. The same grave lockdown due to which the Court has been kept shut and hearing of cases that require more immediate attention postponed.

It is quite self-explanatory then that the situation in our country — socially, economically, politically and according to every other ‘ally’ has been plummeting towards the negative quadrant. Our Honourable Prime Minister did put in his best efforts to lay the foundation stone to the (in)famous mandir and appease Lord Ram. All the “trivial” things set aside — economy, unemployment, plight of migrants, border invasions and yes, of course covid-19 — the Centre quite religiously followed the SC’s landmark verdict. Yet nothing seems to have been under control. Even Lord Ram seems to be offended by something that is going on around here, although no one seems to be able to pinpoint what it is.

Trying to match the offence level is the Supreme Court, which was not very pleased with Bhushan’s criticism of the judicial system. Now, I am not well-versed with the legal side of things, but I do know that the Constitution of India, which our courts consider their bible, proclaims our country to be a democracy, something which our teachers in school had reiterated in simple, catchy terms as “ government for the people, by the people and of the people.” Lately it seems like there needs to be an asterisk with conditions apply on the “people’’ part of that definition, because we had also learnt in school that in a democracy, a dialogue between the state and its citizens is instrumental in decision-making.

Criticism then becomes vital in establishing a healthy form of democratic governance. Even Modiji had emphasized upon this point back in 2015 — “Criticism opens up the door to the shuddikaran (cleansing) of views’’. It is then a question of wonder why the critics of the State are faced with prosecution and jail time while an international platform like Facebook permits communalism and hate content to prevail out of fear of upsetting the very same State. Why isn’t the crossing of the lakshmanrekha, as Justice Mishra had called Bhushan’s tweets, applicable to those who spread hate?

Rhinoceros, in this regard, raises an important voice about the suppression of vocal criticism. In the play, the town is plagued by a strange disease that Ionesco calls rhinoceritis — people just turn into rhinos. The play criticizes the anti-Semitic group “Iron Guard”, who according to Mircea Platon, practised “ a political religion promising a national rebirth or a complete cultural and anthropological renewal.” The rhinoceroses here symbolize the inhuman anti-fascist regime, with their thick green coats, which many critics have alluded to the green Nazi uniform. No matter how rational one might seem, they end up turning into rhinos because of their internal prejudices.

The relevance of the play holds true today, even after it has been sixty years since it first premiered. Ionesco explores the psyche of those who succumbed to fascist power structures, allowing their individual ideals and free will to be encompassed into a violent herd consciousness. The people who turn into rhinos display what Durkheim calls collective effervescence — the intense energy that is produced when humans come together and perform the same activity, repeat the same rituals or words, and think the same thoughts.

This indicates the formation of a herd mentality, which entails the Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest”. Ultimately, one man remains, who is in a dilemma of whether to turn into a rhino or not, because the only options left to him are to either join the large group of rhinos or to die. The SC demanding Bhushan’s apology for expressing his ideals echoes a similar call for a cross-over and Bhushan’s denial of the same at a time when those who question right-wing politics are getting punished, is courageous and commendable.

William Mervin Gumede says, “Alarm bells should be ringing, if critics in a free society are portrayed as disloyal, unpatriotic or enemies of the state.” The SC has not yet explained how Bhushan’s tweets are “scurrilous” or “substantially interfering with the court of justice”. How is it constitutionally binding then to convict him of contempt then? Is it really necessary to prosecute him right now, when the country is in perils with over three million covid cases, unemployment, a whole state in lockdown for over a year and many more grave issues? The Media-Centre-Judiciary nexus in propagating fascist ideals is a dangerous threat to the institution of democracy. Turning a blind eye to the questions that actually require pondering over and instead focusing on the WhatsApp chats of actors exposed by news channels is our first step towards yielding to the power structures. A future where rhinoceritis and covid work in collaboration to take over humanity will not be far if this continues.