The arrest of Muslim standup comedy artist Munawar Faruqui in Indore over alleged hate speech sends disturbing signals to a fledgeling creative industry battling a pandemic and conservative mindsets.
Full disclosure: This writer is a moderate fan of standup comedian Munawar Faruqui who was arrested in Indore for jokes some people said he would crack later. As I write this, Faruqui is in jail and is unlikely to get bail anytime soon. The Madhya Pradesh High Court has ruled that there was “no evidence” so far that the stand-up comedian from Gujarat “had not committed the crime”. His crime? According to Eklavya Gaud, who is the son of a BJP leader, 30-year-old Faruqui was a serial offender who used to make derogatory comments on Hindu religion and its deities.
Interestingly, the night the Muslim standup comedian was booked by police in Indore, a city in the state of Madhya Pradesh which is now ruled by the right-wing BJP, Faruqui had not even started his show properly. In fact, as eyewitnesses told the BBC, he didn’t make any snide or controversial remarks on any religion that day. Still, he was arrested along with 4-5 other comedians under serious charges, such as engaging in acts that could create social disharmony (read riots).
Ironically, Faruqui is a riot-survivor. Reports say the comic from Junagadh in Gujarat was a barely-12-years-old student at the time of the 2002 Gujarat riots. His family had to hide from attackers for nearly 12 days. Such life events often find space in the comedian’s popular shows, obviously with a dark tint. For those who follow his shows online and offline, Faruqui can come off as a no-nonsense and neutral satirist who spares none when it comes to picking subjects for creative ridicule.
In fact, Faruqui is not the first standup comedian to court trouble in India in the recent past. Ace comedian Kunal Kamra courted controversy when a video emerged in which Kamra was seen ‘heckling’ popular pro-right-wing television anchor Arnab Goswami. The incident, which took place in January 2020 on an Indigo flight, later led to a legal wrangle between the anchor and the comedian.
Later in July, Agrima Joshua, a comedian from Mumbai, had to apologise after one of her comments on Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji. In fact, Joshua’s allegedly controversial comments that went viral on social media were part of a video she shot over a year ago, in which she joked about the Maharashtra government’s Shivaji statue project in the Arabian Sea.
Rewind a few years, in July 2017, popular comedian and co-founder of All India Bakchod Tanmay Bhat got into trouble over a meme on Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he posted on Twitter. Bhat soon found an FIR against him in Mumbai, under Section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and 67 of the IT Act (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form).
Barely a year ago, in September 2016, a tweet from comedian Kapil Sharma triggered a row. He alleged that a few officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had sought bribe from him in a matter involving the construction of an office in Mumbai. Sharma was later arrested under sections of the Environment Act in Mumbai, for “dumping debris” near mangroves.
The same year, Kiku Sharda was slapped with 14-day judicial custody in Haryana for his act on Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim Singh. Ironically, Singh, a popular religious leader, was later convicted of rape. There is a long list of comedians who had to apologise over controversial statements.
India’s stand-up scene
Unfortunately, such censures and arrests come at a time stand-up comedy is finding its feet in India, after years of neglect and popular apathy. Even though ace comedians such as Cyrus Broacha, Kunal Vijaykar or Raju Srivastav made standup comedy popular in India in the 1990s and later, it was only in the past decade that stand up comedy evolved into a proper business and art in India.
Today, reports peg India’s stand up comedy market at about Rs 80-90 crore now. Industry watchers say the market has been expanding so fast that within a year or two, it would become an industry to reckon with, especially given the fact that streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime (Comicstaan) and Netflix have been actively promoting stand up comedy in India and companies and platforms such as OML, or AIB have been offering offline venues for standup performances. Many of India’s small towns, such as Kochi, Indore, Coimbatore, Cuttack etc have vibrant standup scapes now, prompting others to follow suit.
India’s stand up scene today has several stars, known for their unique styles. They include the likes of Kamra, Zakir Khan, Atul Khatri, Vir Das, Sahil Shah, Abhish Mathew, Kenny Sebastian, Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Karunesh Talwar, Rahul Subramanian, Abhishek Upmanyu and more. The gang of women comedians include the popular Kaneez Surka, Sumukhi Suresh, Neeti Palta and Aditi Mittal. Many others are entering the scene with confidence and gusto.
Many of them fear that the mushrooming of cases against comedians and how a certain section of the society becomes extremely intolerant towards satire and comedy do not augur well for India’s stand up comedy market, especially at a time when the country has been battling a pandemic. The comedians have on multiple forums expressed fears of losing venues if they venture out to critique politics or religion. In a plural country like India, which produced excellent satires such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the new disturbing trends can have far-reaching impacts, they warn.
Democracy at stake
India is known for its secular polity, which anchors on equal disregard for all religions. The country’s writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians and other creative workers have time and again produced creative content that ridiculed politics, religion, institutions such as family, marriage, cults, and more. Even though stand up comedy has been booming of late, brimming with enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit, the early batches of comedians shied away from making jokes on politics, religion and similar controversial subjects.
It was quite recently that the Indian stand up comedy was able to get out of, or started making efforts towards getting out of, its class, caste and gender biases. Unlike in the West, where comedians in the 1960s, 70s or even in the 1980s courted controversies for their inflammatory comments (examples include Richard Pryor, Groucho Marx and such), India’s standup scene have largely remained calm.
Even now, despite the arrival of politically charged content, most content creators are politically neutral and the shows are still dogged by a middle-class bias, observe sociologists. Many observe that at such a critical juncture when this creative industry is finding its own voice and rhythm thanks to the industriousness and resilience of a brave new crop of comedians, acts such as the arrest of promising talents such as Munawar Faruqui will impact the morale of the artists and their promoters.
Also, there is the larger question of freedom of speech, a fundamental social value India has always been known for. As an editorial on the Hindustan Times recently observed, Faruqui’s is an “emblematic case, which brings to question India’s commitment to free speech, rule of law, and judicial fairness.”