By AVANTIKA MEHTA
Reminiscent of science-fiction action film Minority Report, 28-year-old Munawar Faruqui was arrested on 2 January for a joke he had not made – but could have. Faruqui was arrested for violating colonial-era, anti-blasphemy laws under Sections 295 A and 269 of the Indian Penal Code. Yet, curiously, eyewitnesses said Faruqui’s show was shut down before it had even started. Jenosha Anges, who was at the show, posted a timeline of the night on her Instagram page.
“Munawar Faruqui had his comedy show in Indore on 1st January 2021, his show was cancelled midway, and he was arrested by Indore police on allegations of ‘making derogatory remarks on Hindu Gods n Goddesses’. I was present in that show, and trust me, no such thing happened,” she said in the caption.
Stranger than fiction
Faruqui was arrested while he was performing at a cafe in Indore. Aklavya Gaur, the convener of rightwing non-profit organisation Hind Rakshak Sangathan (HRS), and his associates, complained that the comedian’s jokes insulted Indian deities and the Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah. Founded in 1998, HRS members describe themselves as ‘sentinels of the Hindu nation, religion and culture’.
Video footage of Faruqui attempting to reason with Gaur surfaced – in the video, Faruqui was seen explaining that his first joke was not about Hinduism at all. “My first joke is about Islamist extremists,” he said. Gaur began to speak over him to point out the comedian’s previous performances had jokes about Amit Shah. Several audience members shouted, “Let the man speak!”
“For Indian comedians, censorship is nothing new.”
What followed was the stuff of dystopian fiction. Based on Gaur’s complaint, Indore police arrived at the cafe and arrested Faruqui and another comedian, as well as the organisers of the event. Gaur alleged Faruqui had conspired with the event organisers and cafe owners to outrage religious feelings, uttered words with the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings, and was negligent in performing during a pandemic in a manner likely to spread infectious disease. The first information report (FIR) also states Gaur had a video of ‘objectionable jokes’ and that another comedian showed ‘objectionable things like a condom’ in front of underage audience members. The case is still ongoing. If found guilty, Faruqui will face over four years in jail.
The day after Faruqui’s arrest, Indore police also arrested Sadakat Khan, a friend of the comedian who was not named in the first FIR. A Mumbai resident, Khan had no role in planning the event, nor did he perform. He was part of the audience. While being produced before a magistrate post-arrest, Khan was beaten up in the presence of police. Indore Police Chief Vijay Khatri reportedly admitted that Faruqui had not made any jokes when he was arrested but added that “it didn’t really matter.”
Both the Indore district court and the high court rejected bail for all the accused, including Khan. On 5 February, over a month after his arrest, the Indian Supreme Court granted bail to Faruqui, noting that the charges against the petitioner were vague and that the proper procedure for arresting a person had not been followed. Yet two of the show organisers, Prakhar Vyas and Edwin Anthony were only granted bail on 12 February, while bail for Khan and stand-up comic Nalin Yadav was repeatedly rejected by Indore courts till the end of the month.
The days that some of the co-accused spent in jail drastically changed their lives, despite being only tangentially connected to the case. After being released on bail, Yadav started working as a labourer earning just Rs 200 a day to make ends meet. Yadav told the Hindustan Times that after being released on bail, he has been ostracised by the community, with cafe owners no longer wanting to host him for a performance.
For Indian comedians, censorship is nothing new. In 2015, the first celebrity roast in India (a form of humour in which a celebrity is subjected to jokes at their expense) organised by comedy company All India Bakchod (AIB), was met with police complaints and mass outcry about the ‘obscene’ language used. Videos of the roast were taken down from AIB’s YouTube. AIB’s founders went underground amid threats to their lives and following numerous complaints by Hindu groups.
A year later, Kiku Sharda, a familiar face in the Indian mainstream comedy scene, was arrested after joking about cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. After Singh was jailed for 20 years for rape and murder, Kiku said, ‘I went to jail for a day, and now sir has gone for 20 years.’
“Even politically neutral comedians are in the line of fire from angry mobs.”
While the rest of the world used comedy to tide over a harrowing pandemic year, Indian comedians were vilified. On 15 July 2020, BJP’s National Convenor of Social Media Priti Gandhi tweeted: “Its [sic] become a trend to publicly mock anything Hindu. Unlike other religions, Hindus are very tolerant. But if you stretch a rubberband [sic] beyond a limit, it will snap”. Priti included the hashtag #HinduphobicComedyIndustry. The tweet was a call to the ruling party’s right-wing and Hindutva right-wing supporters.
In the same month, when the Indian government banned the popular Chinese app TikTok, Mumbai-based comedian Kenny Sebastian pointed out that content creators would lose out on revenue streams. He was immediately attacked by pro-Hindutva twitter. Among other abuse hurled at Sebastian was the Hindu nationalist slur ‘rice bag convert’, often used against Indian Christians to say they converted not because of faith but due to material benefits received.
The comedians attacked by Hindu nationalists have different gender identities as well as religious and caste backgrounds. The only commonality they share is that they made jokes involving the Hindu religion or the ruling BJP government in some form.
In October 2018, the founders of AIB came under fire again when a number of women took to the internet to accuse them of aiding sexual harassment from a fellow comic. The accusations led to no outrage, threats or complaints from the pro-Hindutva players in government and their supporters – it was the group’s perceived insults to Hinduism that was objected to.
When stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua performed a sketch pointing out the gullibility of people on the question-and-answer website Quora about the Maharashtra government’s plans to build a statue of Indian ruler Shivaji Bhonsle in the Arabian Sea, she spoke of a user’s claim that the statue was equipped to shoot laser beams at Pakistani infiltrators and could power the entire state using solar cell technology. The video of her sketch was online for 16 months and viewed millions of times.
“While the rest of the world used comedy to tide over a harrowing pandemic year, Indian comedians were vilified.”
However, in July 2020, rightwing social media users found it and took offence. Agrima’s profiles were flooded with death and rape threats. When details about where Agrima had performed were revealed, members of the far-right political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena barged into the cafe and damaged property.
Even as Delhi and Mumbai police arrested men who menaced the comedian, Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh insisted Agrima would face the consequences for making ‘offensive comments on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.’
Beleaguered, Agrima eventually issued a statement saying she was sorry for hurting sentiments of the followers of ‘the great leader Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.’ Nevertheless, apologising was not enough to satiate the Hindutva mob. Agrima’s social media continued to be flooded with threats from trolls, including death threats. In fact, she said the abuse increased.
In total, 2020 saw several comedians besides Agrima apologise for making jokes. All of them were bullied and trolled, had their personal information shared online, and faced threats of legal action. Almost all the jokes they sought pardon for were not new. Some were made almost a decade ago.
Comedian Aadar Malik took to social media to apologise for an eight-year-old stand-up show where he had poked fun at celebrations for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, noting that even his family was receiving threats. ‘Please don’t do that. It becomes a very scary atmosphere to live in’, he said. Following Aadar, AIB co-founder Rohan Joshi also noted that his phone number and address were leaked online. At the end of his apology, Joshi pleaded, ‘please leave my family alone.’
Amidst the fear and harassment, India’s women comedians released a video titled “Women Finally Apologise for Everything.” Made in collaboration with 11 comedians, the video was darkly satirical. Speaking directly to the camera, comic Dolly Singh said, “I am sorry you feel like raping me because you don’t like me and my thoughts.”
“Since the Hindu-aligned BJP government came to power in 2014, hostility towards those who critique the government and the majority religion has intensified.”
Even politically neutral comedians are in the line of fire from angry mobs. Hashtags like #BoycottKapilSharma are trending on Twitter once again. The original call to boycott Sharma began in 2019 when the Pulwama attack was discussed on his show by Navjot Singh Sidhu, a member of the Congress party and a former cricketer. While on Sharma’s show, Sidhu commented that nations could not be held responsible for the dastardly acts of terrorists. The hashtag was used again later when the comedian made an episode around actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide in 2020.
Sharma apologised to the deceased actor’s fans and defended Sidhu. He said that banning, boycotting and sacking people was not a solution to any issue. However, Sidhu was let go from the show – never to appear on it again.
The crackdown on comedy didn’t end with old videos or jokes. In December 2020, the Supreme Court initiated contempt of court charges against comedian Kunal Kamra and illustrator Rachita Taneja (@SanitaryPanels on Instagram). Indians were unsurprised. The two made a meme and an illustration respectively, implying that Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV Arnab Goswami was protected by the Supreme Court and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kamra and Taneja were criticising the Supreme Court granting bail to Goswami, who is under investigation by Mumbai police for fraudulently elevating his channel’s television ratings.
Kamra’s meme was a picture of the Supreme Court building with a saffron flag flying on it. Taneja, who draws striking but simple political illustrations, is accused of contempt of court for drawing a stick figure of Goswami standing between one marked BJP and the other marked Supreme Court gloating, ‘tu jaanta nahin mera baap kon hai (you don’t know who my dad is)’.
The rise of sedition cases
Since the Hindu-aligned BJP government came to power in 2014, hostility towards those who critique the government and the majority religion has intensified. A database compiled by independent media house Article 14 tracked sedition cases filed since 2010. The study revealed that 96 percent of them, filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments, were registered post-2014. A majority of these complaints have been registered in states under the BJP’s rule: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand.
Article 14’s database counted six sedition cases filed in relation to the ongoing farmers’ protests and 22 complaints in connection to the Hathras gangrape in 2020. Another 25 were filed against protestors of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, 22 of which were registered in BJP-ruled states. The ruling party filed 26 of 27 cases against its citizens for criticising the government after the Pulwama terror attack.
“The Indian Constitution provides for a country that is secular, socialist, and above all, a democratic republic. The facts before us say India is now a very different nation than the one envisioned by our founding fathers and mothers.”
The allegedly seditious acts include personal communications on Whatsapp, emails, holding posters, shouting slogans, and posting on social media. Most recently, in February 2021, 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested for editing two lines of a protest toolkit that was publicly available on Google Drive.
It is no surprise that in 2020, India fell to 142 out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index (PFI), dropping another two points from 2019. The government arrested or detained 67 journalists for questioning last year. Seventy-three of the 154 cases against journalists in the last decade are filed from BJP-ruled states.
At least nine journalists have been targeted for covering the farmers’ protest as of 15 February. The dam truly broke when Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist covering the protests at Delhi’s border for Caravan magazine, was beaten up and arrested. The video of law enforcement officers overpowering Punia went viral.
The Indian Constitution provides for a country that is secular, socialist, and above all, a democratic republic. The facts before us say India is now a very different nation than the one envisioned by our founding fathers and mothers.
Now released on bail, Faruqui waits for courts to decide on the petition he has filed to quash all criminal charges against him and his co-accused.
In an interview with Himal Southasian, Faruqui’s friend Sheikh expressed the fear experienced by all Muslim comedians since the arrest in January. “I look Muslim, in the sense that I have a long beard and I’m a devout practitioner of my faith. Munawar passes: nothing about his appearance shouts he’s Muslim except his name. So if this kind of treatment can happen with Munawar, where does it leave the rest of us?” The question remains unanswered.
A few days after he left Indore jail, Faruqui released a short video titled ‘Munawar Faruqui leaving comedy’.
In the video, he talked about the futility of hate, telling his fans not to respond to abusive comments, as it would only lead to a never-ending cycle of hate. “Internet arguments have no conclusion, no end,” he said. Touching upon events since 1 January 2021, he noted that jail hadn’t deterred him from continuing a career in comedy, even though he had never expected to be imprisoned for his jokes. “I’d like to apologise about the typo in my video title,” he said, adding, “I’m not leaving comedy. I’m living comedy.”
This story first appeared on himalmag.com