A comedian gets up to speak, but before he can so much as utter a word, someone gets up and accuses him of bigotry. He’s then arrested and put before a judge.
Does that sound scary? It should, because that’s exactly what has happened to Indian comic Munawar Faruqui.
On the evening of 1st of January, Faruqui was about to start his set at a cafe in Indore when the leader of a local Hindu fringe group arrived, stopped the show and complained that the comic was ‘insulting’ Hindu religious sentiments. Given that Indore is a prominent city in Madhya Pradesh and is ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP, you can understand why Faruqui was worried. Mobile phone footage shows the comedian pleading with the fringe group’s leader, Eklavya Gaud, that he also jokes about Muslims in his shows and that he should be allowed to continue.
“I just want to make people laugh, if anyone feels offended I will never do it again.” Faruqui can be seen telling Gaud. He received support from audience members, but Gaud was drunk on power. He left the show and called in the police. That night, Faruqui and four others were arrested and charged with outraging religious feelings and performing a ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of diseases dangerous to life’ a shout out to the pandemic.
Gaud took to his story claiming that Faruqui was a serial offender who had made indecent remarks about Hindu gods and goddesses, pointing to a claim made by a lawyer last July on this very issue.
This shocking and damning indictment of India’s tolerance of free speech is made even worse by the fact that eyewitnesses have repeatedly told reporters and anyone who will listen that Faruqui had not cracked any jokes relating to religion when he was picked up. Indeed, he hadn’t even started his routine when Mr Gaud stopped the show. Things have been made even worse by the police admitting that they had no evidence to suggest that Faruqui had even made the jokes he was arrested for, and that the complainant had ‘overheard some jokes’ that the comic was preparing for the show.
Over the past month, two courts have refused to give him bail and the high court in Madhya Pradesh is hearing a new plea. The police are naturally bullshitting themselves and claiming releasing him would create a ‘law and order situation,’ without describing how such a situation would arise.
It does not take a genius to see what the consequences of Faruqui’s arrest will be not just for the comic himself but for everyone. People, especially comedians will have to police themselves, they will need to stay away from possibly sensitive areas such as politics or religion.
Whilst many comedians have posted messages of solidarity on Faruqui’s YouTube Channel and his other social media accounts are increasing in follower count, it is hard not to think that the joke has been imprisoned in India.