Indian Muslim comic in jail for weeks for jokes he did not tell

Munawar Faruqui held for 25 days in a Madhya Pradesh jail despite police admitting he was charged for jokes he was ‘going to’ crack.

Munawar Faruqui's performances included jokes on religious riots, the controversial citizenship law, police brutality against students and the ongoing farmers' protest [Screengrab]

New Delhi, India – An Indian Muslim stand-up comic has spent 25 days in a Madhya Pradesh jail for jokes he did not tell an audience, but on suspicions he was “going to”.

Mumbai-based Munawar Faruqui, 28, is facing legal action in two states. In Madhya Pradesh, he was arrested while performing by Indore police for allegedly insulting Hindu deities during rehearsals. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, he is sought by the police in another case of allegedly insulting Hindu deities as well as Home Minister Amit Shah.

On Monday, the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court reserved its order on Faruqui’s bail application. The court was hearing the comedian’s bail application after two pleas were rejected by a lower court earlier this month.

Both states are governed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Shah is a member and which also controls the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Was ‘going to’ crack anti-Hindu jokes

On the night of January 1, Faruqui was heckled by Hindu vigilantes and forced to stop his performance at Indore’s Monroe cafe after members of a little-known Hindu group, called Hind Rakshak Sangathan, alleged he had insulted Hindu gods.

Faruqui along with four others – Nalin Yadav, Prakhar Vyas, Priyam Vyas and Edwin Anthony – were roughed up and handed over to the police.

Sadakat Khan, a friend of Faruqui who was not mentioned as one of the accused, was arrested the next day on charges of being a co-organiser of the comedy event.

After their bail applications were rejected twice by a lower court, Faruqui’s lawyer moved to the high court, where the hearing listed for January 15 had to be adjourned because the Indore police failed to submit the case diary.

The police were dragging their feet, Anshuman Srivastava, Faruqui’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera.

Indore police initially claimed that “objectionable comments” were made against Hindu deities at the comedy event. The city’s Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri issued a statement, claiming they had “enough evidence” against Faruqui and others arrested.

Last week, however, Khatri told Article 14, an Indian news website, that Faruqui had not made the jokes in a performance but was “going to”.

Indore police have not responded to Al Jazeera’s phone calls and emails seeking their response to allegations that Faruqui was arrested for a crime he “intended to commit”.

Faruqui’s lawyer Srivastava told Al Jazeera that the police have failed to produce any evidence in court that shows the comedian violated laws by “deliberately intending to outrage religious feelings”.

“A hypothetical allegation has been levelled by the complainant and merely on the basis of presumption the police has registered an offence,” said Srivastava, accusing the police of registering the complaint because of “political pressure”.

The complainant, Eklavya Singh Gaur, is the son of a BJP legislator and former minister in the Madhya Pradesh government. Gaur is also the convenor of the Hindu vigilante group that heckled and interrupted the event.

“BJP has no role in it. The case was filed at an individual level. You can’t say there is any political pressure or influence. Court will take a decision on the basis of arguments,” Rajneesh Agrawal, BJP’s state secretary in Madhya Pradesh, told Al Jazeera.

On accusations of targeting a Muslim comedian for his political comments, Agrawal said the allegations are baseless and that the BJP government in the state “has looked out for Muslim welfare”.

In the case against Faruqui in Uttar Pradesh, lawyer Ashutosh Mishra cited one of the comedian’s stand-up videos, claiming Faruqui was hinting in it that Home Minister Shah had incited the religious violence in Gujarat state in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. Shah was Gujarat’s home minister at the time, while Modi was the chief minister.

“Since the name of Amit Shah is involved, this political drama has taken place in Indore. How can they take cognisance of any comments made on any political person of any party?” Srivastava asked.

Mishra’s complaint against Faruqui also mentions another video, alleging he made fun of Hindu gods in it.

Comics under threat

Over the past few years, several Indian comics have faced police cases or mob threats for allegedly harming religious or other sentiments, with many saying the pattern indicates the shrinking of freedom of speech in the country.

In December, top comedian Kunal Kamra and young cartoonist Rachita Taneja were served show-cause notices by the Supreme Court in response to complaints alleging they had showed contempt to the top court.

Taneja’s comic strip, called Sanitary Panels, insinuated the court was hand in glove with the governing BJP, while Kamra’s tweets called it “the most Supreme joke of the country”. He also shared an image of the court building painted saffron – the colour the BJP is identified with – with a party flag in the foreground.

It is not uncommon for comedians to feel they have to cancel shows or hide because of threats from religious or political groups.

In July last year, Agrima Joshua, a female stand-up comic from Mumbai, was at the receiving end of threats of rape and violence. The 2019 video for which she was attacked and charged with a case showed her telling jokes about the Maharashtra state government’s plans to build a massive statue of Shivaji, a 17th-century warrior-king.

Joshua was forced to apologise through a video on social media.

“They want to create a spectacle. It becomes a source of pride for them. It’s also to show you that you don’t belong in this country if you don’t match their ideology … and now, Munawar is being made an example,” Joshua told Al Jazeera.

Radhika Vaz, another female comic, was trolled and harassed for defending Joshua on national news channels. Old videos where she made a reference to Karwa Chauth, a Hindu festival where women observe fast for their husbands were dug up as examples of her making fun of Hindu culture.

Vaz’s claim that she was actually referencing “how we put the men first” didn’t help much.

“They are creating this otherness because there is no other way to do it. My last name is a Christian last name and it is easier for them to say, oh, she doesn’t like Hindu culture,” Vaz told Al Jazeera.

The same month, right-wing trolls went after several other comedians, accusing the comedy industry of being “Hinduphobic”.

Like Vaz, several comedians, including Vir Das, Rohan Joshi and Kaneez Surka have been subjected to abuses and harassment over their past performances, forcing many to issue an apology.

‘Muslim first and last name’

Most popular comedians, however, steer clear of political satire or commenting on religious groups, often in fear of losing right-wing fans or inviting their ire.

Faruqui, though a relative newcomer to India’s comedy scene, instead chose to comment on Prime Minister Modi, his government, the BJP and its ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which aims to turn India into an ethnic Hindu state.

Faruqui’s performances have included jokes on the religious riots, the controversial citizenship law passed in 2019, police brutality against students, and the ongoing farmers’ protest – among others – topics considered “sensitive” in the country.

Even as the comedian remains behind bars, the comedy industry and the political opposition has largely chosen to remain quiet on the issue.

“There are comics who say all kinds of stupid things and are not in jail. Yes, we might get threatened or trolled but this is happening only because he [Munawar] has a Muslim first and last name,” said Vaz.

Source: Al Jazeera