Art As Profanity: Why The Arrest Of Vlogger Roddur Roy Differs From Others Who Abused Politicians

SNIGDHENDU BHATTACHARYA
 
06 Jul 2022 14 min read  Share

Bengali vlogger Roddur Roy, known for his parodies of songs and expletive-laden social commentary, got bail after three weeks in Kolkata lock-ups and jail. A Kolkata police team flew 1,700 km to Goa to arrest the 50-year-old for abusing West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Facebook. Roy’s vlogs are loved and hated equally—many who oppose his unconventional style believe he voices popular opinions, although he has, for three years, pushed the boundaries of what is considered acceptable

Roddur Roy, screengrab from Facebook live on June 7, hours before his arrest

KOLKATA: “We are talking about swearing. Yes, using expletives can land you in jail. What is said using expletives is not important. Important matters are always buried under police cases. Haha!” 


Bengali vlogger Roddur Roy, 50, who has achieved fame and notoriety over the past three to four years for using expletives and smoking pot on camera while using exaggerated facial expressions and a strange accent, made these comments during a Facebook ‘live’ session on the afternoon of 6 June 2022. The tall, slim and bearded man whose real name is  Anirban Dey, continued: “To understand this truth, start cussing today and see what remains for you after the social layer is removed.” 


Among the past targets of Roy’s sarcasm are prime minister Narendra Modi, union home minister Amit Shah, subjects such as communalism and society in general. 


But when, on 2 and 3 June, he made chief minister Mamata Banerjee, her nephew and Lok Sabha member of Parliament Abhishek, and three other Bengal ministers of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) his latest target, Roy was booked in two separate complaints at the Hare Street and Chitpore police stations in Kolkata. 


There were some complaints lodged against him earlier at other police stations, but the complaint at Hare Street police station was acted upon, coming as it did from TMC Rajya Sabha member of parliament (MP) Shantanu Sen. 


Sitting in his room in Goa, Roy started the 6 June session in his signature style, wearing a black T-shirt, blue bandanna and a rudraksha mala (a string of utrasum beads worn around the neck), preparing to roll a joint. Over the next half hour, he lectured viewers on the benefits of using expletives. He said it helped create human bonding, including intimacy between lovers, and helps shake up powerful people, such as prime ministers and chief ministers.  


“If you cannot bring out the emotion, energy, logic and magic in you, then you’ll remain a ch**** (f***er) all your life,” he said. 


He appeared in another live session the next day, hours before a team from Kolkata police, including officers from the cyber crime and anti-rowdy units, picked him up from his home in Goa. 


When the police burst in, Roy had just finished his session. In it, he mocked a line from a rhyme written by chief minister Mamata Banerjee.


The chief minister's poems became a favourite with Roy for his expletive-filled commentaries after the Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi, a West Bengal government-funded autonomous body for the promotion of study and research of Bengali language and literature, gave her an award in May for her recently published poetry omnibus, Kobita Bitan, a title that is very similar to Rabindranath Tagore’s song collection Geeto-Bitan. 


The Akademi, headed by Banerjee’s education minister Brata Basu awarded her in a category introduced this year, for “relentless literary pursuit”. 


Roy has since mocked the award to Banerjee and her poems. 


On 7 June, after seemingly making fun of Banerjee’s line ‘Epang Opang Jhopang’ (a nonsense verse or whimsical line), Roy added a line of his own: ‘Sur Dhorechhe Potang.’ It meant an imaginary persona named Potang was beginning to sing. 


In his trademark out-of-tune style, Roy proceeded to sing, inserting expletives into the verse. “Potang doesn’t know the police are coming for him. Potang is singing. Potang is suspected of being a terrorist because of his squinted eyes… he is still not scared! He’s still making fun of others!” 


After the arrest on 7 June, the police took Roy to Kolkata the next day and produced him before the chief metropolitan magistrate’s court on 9 June, where he was remanded to five days’ police custody. On 14 June, when the chief metropolitan magistrate sent him to six days’ judicial custody, he also got six days in police custody in a second case that came up before an additional chief metropolitan magistrate’s court. On 22 June, a third case came up for hearing, and this time he was remanded to four days’ police custody. 


Roy seemed to be in for a long legal battle, according to his friends and well-wishers. On his way back to police lock-up from the court premises on 14 June, Roy told mediapersons that no one understood art. 


“I’m an artist, not a terrorist,” he said from inside the police car, making a thumbs-up gesture, still smiling. 


Mocking A Chief Minister Sensitive To Criticism


West Bengal has recorded several instances of arrests for social media comments against the chief minister or other ministers. In 2012, Kolkata police arrested a Jadavpur University professor for circulating a spoof about the chief minister. The same year, the police in Jhargram district arrested farmer Shiladitya Choudhury, who had asked Banerjee a question at a public rally about rising fertiliser prices—a question  that prompted the chief minister to publicly say that Maoists had infiltrated the venue. 


There are several examples of arrests of and cases against social media users for comments made about political personalities, but none attracted as many penal sections as Roddur Roy’s cases have. He was booked on 12 charges in the first case.  


Senior lawyer Arunabha Ghosh, a former Congress legislator and current president of Calcutta High Court Bar Association, said that though he did not approve of the content and language of Roy’s programmes, the police should not have slapped unrelated penal provisions on him.


“It should have been a case for defamation. But defamation is a bailable offence,” said Ghosh. “The purpose of the administration was to keep him behind bars and that's why the other sections have been applied.” 


Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker Babua Ghosh, arrested in September 2018 for posting a morphed photo of Banerjee and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, suggesting that unmarried people are of unsound mind, was charged under section 65 (tampering with computer source documents) of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, and sections 292 (sale of obscene books, etc) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.  


In October 2019, BJP worker Chandan Das was arrested for offensive comments on Facebook about the chief minister for her alleged appeasement of Muslims. He was booked under section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act and section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the IPC. 


In December 2019, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Motiur Rahman was arrested for posting ‘objectionable’ remarks about the CM and her administration. He was booked under section 67 of the IT Act and sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 509 of the IPC. 


Twelve Sections Of Penal Code, Three FIRs


In Roy’s case, the charge against him in the first case, filed by the Rajya Sabha MP Sen, pertained to “extremely unparliamentary, filthy and abusive languages” in his video posts about the CM and other TMC leaders, but the Hare Street police station booked him under 12 sections of the IPC. 


These included 120b (party to a criminal conspiracy), 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence), 417 (punishment for cheating), 465 (punishment for forgery), 467 (forgery of a valuable security, will or authority to make or transfer any valuable security, or to receive any money, etc), 468 (forgery for purpose of  cheating), 469 (forgery for the purpose of harming the reputation of any person), 501 (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman). 


The second FIR against Roy was filed by a man named Sushanta Aish at the Burtolla police station in Kolkata for comments he made during a live broadcast on 3 May 2020, about prime minister Narendra Modi and the Covid-19 lockdown. Five sections of law were invoked—153, 153B, 504, 189 (threat of injury to public servant) and 505 (1B) (making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity) of the IPC. 


The third case was filed by TMC student wing member Aritro Saha at the Patuli police station in Kolkata on 10 May 2022 after Roy mocked Banerjee in a live video broadcast the same day. Sections 500 (punishment for defamation) and 509 of the IPC and section 67 of the IT Act were invoked. 


“The very instance of applying so many serious charges against a person accused mainly of using filthy language makes it a political arrest,” Ranjit Sur, general secretary of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), the state’s largest human rights group, told Article 14


“His language can be debated, socially and academically,” said Sur. “Many people also think he is speaking the right things in a bad language.” 


Roy obtained bail in the Hare Street police station case on 20 June and in the Patuli police station case on 26 June. Finally, he obtained bail in the Burtolla police station case on 27 June, in which the judge ordered him to broadcast a video apologising for insulting the national flag. 


Roy’s lawyer Yasin Rahman said the judge granted interim bail on a bail bond of Rs 1,000 and asked him to pay another Rs 5,000 as a personal bond. “The judge has also asked him to upload a video apologising for the insult to the national flag. It’s a condition for bail,” said Rahman. The judge clarified that the apology cannot be used during the trial in any of the cases, Rahman said.   


As of 5 July, Roy has not uploaded any more videos on Facebook or YouTube. 


APDR’s Sur, and several others, issued statements saying the condition was not as per law . 


In a thread of tweets posted the same day, New Delhi-based advocate Jhuma Sen wrote, “I don't know why this is not being reiterated or reiterated enough, but the apology by producing a video as sought from #roddurroy as a bail condition, as indicated by media reports, is dangerous.”


She said the Supreme Court in Aparna Bhat vs The State Of Madhya Pradesh “reiterated” that “extraneous bail conditions often bordering on sexist, patriarchal assumptions are bad in law”.

 

Sen said, “For example, using rakhi tying as a condition for bail transforms a molester into a brother, by a judicial mandate.” She said the inference in Roy’s case was that an act of defiance by an artist, however unpalatable, is turned into an act of submission. “...it consequently transforms the state as a subject of legitimate critique and accountability into a genteel, forgiving patriarch,” Sen said.


Roy’s Vlogs: An Ukulele, A Joint, Parodied Songs, Profanities


Roy liberally sprinkles his commentaries with a string of profanities. Sometimes he just smokes a joint, sings parodies, often distorting popular songs of Rabindranath Tagore, and plays his instruments, mostly the ukulele or a guitar, out of tune. 


He categorises many of his shows as ‘moxa dope comedy’. Moxa is an ideology he claims to have developed, and he calls himself Biswa-Kobi, or universal poet, a title that Bengalis reserve for Tagore.


Roy has a substantial social media presence: 491,000 followers on Facebook and 360,000 followers on YouTube. Comments on his posts indicate that many viewers believe he behaves unhinged, but his opinions reflect their views.


One 12:55 minute video from 2019, titled Sobai Bhalo To (everybody alright?), garnered 1.37 million views. 


In a July 2020 YouTube video and a January 2021 video, he spoke about his views on Modi. 


In the 3 May 2020 video that attracted the Burtolla police station FIR, his rant against the prime minister in Hindi was peppered with expletives. “I am that labourer who couldn’t return home, who died on the road,” he said. “First you harassed us over the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and now with the virus.” 


He threatened to pull down the Parliament building and gave the PM 100 days to arrest him. At the end, however, he issued a disclaimer: “This piece of lecture is not resembling any dead or alive person. This is completely a work of art and all the characters are f***ing imaginary.” 


In the 2 June 2022 video, Roy was as angry as in the May video, laying into the state government and the ruling party on alleged lawlessness and on party leaders and their allegedly “puppet” police. He  repeatedly referred to the chief minister as ‘b****c***i Didi.’ Banerjee is popularly called ‘didi’, or elder sister. 


Amid a string of abuses, he said a TMC legislator had led a rally of 30 bikes without helmets. He railed against the alleged lawlessness at late singer Kay Kay’s final event in Kolkata.


He lambasted the chief minister for intimidating journalists who are critical of her. “Baaler rajyo, baaler CM, baaler TMC (ass of a state, ass of a CM and TMC the ass)” he said. “Onek ch********o bhai, otho. (You’ve f***ed enough, brother, now get up.)”


The video went viral. As of 4 July, it attracted 180,000 views and over 4,000 comments. “Finally, someone got the nerves to speak up,” wrote one Sharmistha Kar, “Thiki ache, evabei nongra vasha tei nongrami guloke bhojano uchit. (It’s perfect, this is how vulgarism should be explained, in vulgar language).”  


In his 3 June Facebook live, which has been viewed 72,000 times, he spoke in more general terms, on broader issues. 


“We are all unconscious people, playing with data, lacking in expression and emotion. We are never defining ourselves before others,” he said. “There has to be someone for the (real) work, but there is nobody. We are someone’s follower, someone’s hater, we either support or oppose a view because we have no view of our own…”


Profanity In Art Versus Intolerance


Roddur Roy is a pseudonym used by Anirban Dey, who grew up in Kolkata’s northern suburb of Dumdum and reportedly worked in the IT industry in Noida for some years. According to an interview he gave Bengali daily Aajkal in 2020, Roddur Roy is a character he plays, “an utmost confused and frustrated person”.

 

In the context of using expletives as a mode of expression, Roy has two recent predecessors. The poet Purandar Bhat, a character from writer Nabarun Bhattacharya’s stories of the Fyataru series that have attained a cult status,  entered the scene in the 1990s. Gandu, the protagonist in maverick filmmaker’s Q’s 2010 feature Gandu came thereafter with his dirty rap


Bhattacharya’s Fyataru series earned such popularity that they have been made into a play and film. Bhashabandhan, the small press that Bhattacharya launched, published a compilation of Purandar Bhat’s poems. While Gandu has not had a theatrical release in India, it won accolades on global stages and remained widely viewed through online modes of viewing.  


Here is a sample from a Purandar Bhat poem:  


G**d Mari 

G**d Mari Tor Motorgarir 

G**d Mari Tor shopping mall-er

Bujhbi jokhon asbe teRe

Nyangto Mazoor Saban-koll er 


(I f*** your motorcars in the ass 

I f*** your shopping malls in the ass 

You’ll get a taste when the naked workers 

From the soap factory come chasing) 


Coincidental or not, Q, the director of Gandu, happens to be a friend of Roddur Roy, and so is Nabarun Bhattacharya’s son, Tathagata, himself a journalist. Roy’s Bengali novel, Moxa Renaissance, was published in 2020 by Saptarshi Prakashan, an independent press that earlier published several of Bhattacharya’s books. 


Q has described Roy as a “lampoon artist”, while Tathagata recently wrote on Facebook about Roddur’s down-to-earth living. 


After some Bengali media outlets reported, citing anonymous police sources, that Roy earned lakhs per month from YouTube, Tathagata wrote on Facebook that Roy slept nine months of a year on the floor and on a camping cot for the three months of winter, has hardly any furniture at home, and has self-cooked khichuri (a dish made of rice and lentil) for both meals a day throughout the year, without ghee or spices. 


“It takes a fortune to get a pure soul like him for a friend,” wrote Tathagata. 


Nabarun Bhattacharya or Q did not have to face an obscenity trial but, nearly 60 years ago, an obscenity trial in Kolkata gained international attention. 


In September 1964,three poets and a short story writer of Calcutta’s Hungry Generation literary group—known for explicit, erotic works—were arrested, a development reported by major Western media outlets, including this story in Time magazine. 


Of the three, one poet, Malay Roy Choudhury, had to finally face trial under section 292 of the IPC (sale, distribution etc of obscene books). The lower court convicted him and fined him Rs 200, but the high court overruled the conviction in 1966. 


Roy has defended his use of profanity as unorthodox art, but the charges against him are much more serious.   


(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and independent journalist based in Kolkata, writing on politics, policies, environment, human rights, data, history and culture.)