As Jawaharlal Nehru was pushing the First Amendment through Parliament in 1951, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, later the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, stood up in defence of individual liberty. “Public order is an expression which is capable of the widest possible definition,” he warned his fellow parliamentarians. “You can use it for penalising your political opponents.”
Or, as it turns out, a comedian. When comedian Munawar Faruqui was languishing in jail earlier this year, charged with insulting Hindu deities in a joke he had not made, friend and fellow comedian Saad Shaikh told Lounge: “Don’t worry, he will get out. We used to sit and joke earlier that if ISIS comes to India, Muslim comedians will be the first to be beheaded. And I am sure we will write jokes about this episode too.”
Faruqui did get out but he did not get the last laugh. His recent show in Bengaluru was cancelled. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Jai Shri Ram Sena Sanghatan complained to the police, who in turn “advised” the organisers to cancel the event, saying the show could “create chaos and could disturb the public peace and harmony”. In effect, the police said they could not guarantee law and order at a comedy venue where 600 tickets had been sold. All this despite an earlier Supreme Court verdict that noted, “What good is the protection of freedom of expression if the state does not take care to protect it?”
Faruqui put up an Instagram post, saying “Nafrat jeet gayi. Artist haar gaya (Hate has won. Artist has lost). I’m done! Goodbye.” He claimed 12 shows had been called off in the last two months because of threats. In effect, he had been cancelled. When he was first arrested in Madhya Pradesh on the basis of a joke he had not cracked at the event in Indore, the newsletter Splainer had called the shifting case against him “an arrest in search of evidence of a crime”. The police had admitted there was no videotaped evidence of Faruqui making the offensive statements at that event. Then they said he was arrested as an “organiser” of the event even though he was not. Later, they said the comments were made during rehearsals. Finally, they pointed to an older performance and a joke about Mera Piya Ghar Aya, O Ramji and a crack at Union home minister Amit Shah. Then the Uttar Pradesh police filed complaints. All this allowed the Bengaluru police to say he was a “controversial figure” with cases against him in several states.
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But by now his crime was clear. Just as Driving While Black became a codeword for racial profiling in the US, Cracking Jokes While Muslim has become a thing in India. Actually, there’s also Selling Bangles While Muslim, Transporting Cattle While Muslim, Selling Meat While Muslim.
At one time, taking offence seemed to be an equal opportunity sport in India, with Muslims leading the charge against The Satanic Verses and Hindus railing against M.F. Husain’s paintings. But while all sides in India might be itching to take offence, it’s misleading to pretend that all sides are created equal in their power to take action. Many conservative Muslims might also be offended by comedians like Faruqui but they don’t have politicians, the sons of politicians, multiple organised groups and law enforcement agents bolstering their umbrage. Munawar Faruqui quit because he understood the crushing weight of the forces arrayed against him. He has supporters who tweeted in support but the collective weight of their tweets was flimsy defence against the mob that could show up at his venues, the police who could arrest him, the cases that could drag on for years. He might have won the case at the end but the process would be the punishment.
The case of Munawar Faruqui re-drew the line in the sand. Husain had actually painted the image of Saraswati that offended his critics. Faruqui was arrested for a joke he had not cracked but might have in the future. This was literally thought policing.
That comedians, and not just Muslim ones, run afoul of the thought police is not surprising. Comedy, after all, thrives on living on the edge. A long list of stand-up comedians from Faruqui to Shyam Rangeela to Kunal Kamra to Vir Das have run into trouble with trolls, politicians and police. And because police stations are happy to file these FIRs (whether or not a higher court eventually throws them out), they will keep facing the FIRing line. As stand-up comic Anuvab Pal says "They always call us on TV when there is a jailed comedian. And most comedians don't want to go. I said why not hire an unknown actor to go on these channels and have a meltdown." It’s not that there is no audience for this comedy. When Shyam Rangeela did a Narendra Modi routine in front of celebrities like Akshay Kumar, it brought the house down. When the Great Indian Laughter Challenge aired on television, however, his segment had been axed.
The government did not have to ask for the segment to be axed. The police did not have to cancel Faruqui’s show. The organisers themselves did it. Faruqui claimed he had a “censor certificate” proving there was nothing “problematic” about the show. That made no difference, just as a censor certificate had no impact on those protesting the film Padmaavat. But it’s surreal to think that a comedy show for 600 people needed a censor certificate in the first place.
What is especially telling is that the Faruqui case felt more sad than shocking. No one was truly surprised that it had come to this. When musician T.M. Krishna’s concert was cancelled after he was targeted by right-wing trolls, the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi reached out to him, saying they would host a concert for him. It is unlikely the same grace will be extended to Faruqui. Even if he gets one gig in some state, he will always be at the mercy of law enforcement, which journalist Josy Joseph, author of The Silent Coup, said in an interview is often more invested in “serving the master of the day” than in “upholding democracy”, which becomes just “the individual mission for some very good officers”.
What we really need are the angel protectors of the Laramie Project. When gay American student Matthew Shepard was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die in 1998, it shocked America. At his funeral service, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church and his followers showed up chanting slogans, holding up placards with homophobic slurs. When the trial of Shepard’s killers began, the Westboro Baptist Church returned. But this time they were met by counter-protesters wearing 7ft-high angel wings blocking them from the media limelight. It led to a movement called Angel Action.
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It’s harder to think of an Angel Action when the opponent is not one fringe group like the Westboro Baptist Church. We call the groups that vandalise comedy clubs and movie sets the fringe element. In reality, it is the Munawar Faruquis who cling to the shrinking fringe while the ground rules shift around them. Once, we dubbed this an Offence Olympics but there is nothing sporting about what’s going on here. This has the trappings of a culture war. The hot-button issues in India might be different from the ones in the US but the goal is the same—a majoritarian monoculture where the dissenters are automatically anti-national.
In the famous Bengali poet Sukumar Ray’s Ekushey Aain, or Rule Of 21, the rules are hard to understand in Lord Shiva’s native land. In the translation by Sukanta Chaudhuri,
You also need a special lease
Till six o’clock to cough or sneeze
And those who sneeze without permission
Are thrashed in gentle admonition
And twenty-one compelling doses
Of snuff rammed up their streaming noses.
Chaudhuri once told me that the more he reads the news these days, the more he thinks about that poem, its rule of 21 eerily prescient in 2021, a hundred years after the poem was originally published. Actually, if that poem had been published today, Ray might have been charged with offending religious sentiments by setting his absurd laws in “Lord Shiva’s native land” in the first place.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.