Criticism is not new for artists in any part of the world or historic timeline. But when it comes in the form of abuses and rape threats, it turns into something far more sinister and pulls up the curtain on the prevailing intolerance in society. The arrest of Munawar Faruqui is yet another example of why it is not easy to be a comedian in India, especially at a time when the sentiments of people are easily hurt.
Faruqi was arrested on January 1 for allegedly “insulting” home minister Amit Shah and certain Hindu deities – even though there is no video evidence to back up the claim. The Indore police arrested Faruqui and four associates – Nalin Yadav, Edvin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas, and Priyam Vyas – following a complaint by Eklavya Gaur, son of Indore BJP MLA Malini Gaur. The five were remanded to judicial custody until January 13. A court in Madhya Pradesh’s Indore rejected their bail applications on January 5.
The five have been booked under Indian Penal Code’s Section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 298 (deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings), Section 269 (negligent act likely to spread disease), Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and Section 34 (common intention).
In recent years, the use of intimidation tactics against comedians in India has gone up manifold. In the aftermath of the arrest, several comics, including Vir Das, Varun Grover, Kaneez Surkha and Agrima Joshua took to social media in support of Faruqui.
Speaking to LiveWire, Joshua, who has been at the receiving end of rape and death threats herself over a joke, said, “Munawar Faruqui is a talented, hardworking and sincere comedian who is simply being targeted for his political satire that sharply critiques the powers that be. The false charge of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ is widely used to discredit voices that this government is afraid of.”
Online, Mumbai-based Joshua has seen trolls celebrating the death of Munawar Faruqui. She herself had come under attack over a joke about how she had read a comment on Quora where a user had said that the Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj statue would have a GPS tracker and would shoot laser rays out of its eyes to kill Pakistani terrorists in the Arabian Sea. A year after the sketch at a comedy club in Mumbai, the video went viral on social media and many accused her of disrespecting Marathas.
One abuser, 26-year-old YouTuber Shubham Mishra, was taken into custody by the Vadodara police in July 2020 for uploading an abusive video in which he issued rape threats and used derogatory language against Joshua, her mother and her sister. The police finally acted after many people sent in complaints, including actress Swara Bhasker, several stand-up comedians and journalists.
These cases make clear the heights at which intolerance has reached in India today. And not just today, the last six years under the BJP’s rule at the Centre stand as a testament to this – where death and rape threats being issued by their supporters to those who dissent have become the norm. The cost of this has been multifold, as can be seen each day while reading the newspaper.
In many democracies around the world, comedians play a role in offering sharp political commentary and are celebrated for it. In India, political commentary is fast becoming a sure shot way to find yourself in a jail cell or under attack by a troll army.
“A society that stops laughing at itself is a dead society. Conversely, a dead society laughs at misogyny, pseudo nationalism, irrationality, body shaming, and basically always at punch down humour,” stand-up comedian Sanjay Rajoura tells LiveWire. A member of Aisi Taisi Democracy, he spoke of how people should understand that it is not wrong to talk about religion into comedy. “People need to understand that they have a personal relationship with god, and that god is capable of defending himself. If there was no discussion on religion, then the practice of sati would continue. This surely must be one of god’s #NotInMyName moments.”
Of course, religious and cultural references need to be treated carefully, and any political joke gone wrong can prove to be brutal for a comedian’s career. This is what fascism looks like – when your basic rights are being curbed because somebody does not agree with your thoughts. The arrest of Faruqui proves that we don’t have tolerance left in our country. In his videos, he makes many jokes about Islam too, but the mob is happy to cherrypick a violation and take action.
Section 295(A), which is invoked for hurting religious sentiments, is an archaic law from the time of British rule. Such an antiquated law has no place in a democratic society. It’s interesting to note that 295(A) of undivided India is the precursor to Pakistan’s 295(C) — the blasphemy law which carries the death penalty. Are we following in the footsteps of Pakistan? These acts clearly violate the very idea of freedom of expression, especially when used in cases like this.
On how jokes around religion and politics are very dangerous today, Mumbai-based comedian Abhijit Ganguly told LiveWire, “Honestly, in my opinion, jokes around politics are the bigger issue here. Because the moment you joke about politics, you see this inherent effort on part of the political parties to paint you as villainous people who crack jokes about their religion. It’s infuriating at best and demoralising at worst. They are putting comics at great risk from many who seem convinced that the comic community is against their religion. Of course, this risk is significantly more if you’re Muslim, and unfortunately that’s what has been the case with Munawar.”
“In a fascist regime, the intellectuals go first, then the press, and then the comedians,” he says, “The first two have already happened.”
Now it is the turn of the comedians.
Jagisha Arora has an MA in History and has worked as a freelance writer. She writes on issues of gender, caste and democracy.
Featured image credit: Instagram/Munawar Faruqui