Right wing vigilante groups target stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Munawar Faruqui during a stand-up performance in May 2021.

The notice cancelling stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui’s show on the advice of the Bengaluru Police, outside Good Shepherd auditorium in Bengaluru on November 28. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

Munawar Faruqui was imprisoned in Indore jail earlier this year for allegedly insulting Hindu gods in his comedy shows, which have been cancelled thereafter owing to ultimatums by right-wing vigilante groups. He now faces threats to his life and the denial of the right to earn a livelihood.

All doors of earning his livelihood as a stand-up comic are closing on Munawar Faruqui. The organisers of the Gurgaon Comedy Festival cancelled his performance barely a few days before the event, succumbing to the pressure exerted by local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The cancellation of the Gurgaon performance marked the 13th such occasion when Faruqui was denied his right to ply his craft, and was a continuation of the browbeating tactics resorted to by many Hindutva activists after Faruqui got bail in February 2020.

Arun Yadav, the BJP’s Haryana IT cell in-charge, filed a police complaint expressing concerns about communal harmony if Faruqui’s show was allowed to take place. He also tweeted the police complaint, stating, “We will not allow this traitor’s show in Gurgaon under any circumstances. Jai Shri Ram.” Faruqui’s jokes apparently “offended” his Hindu faith, Yadav said in the complaint, adding, “To maintain peace and harmony between different sections of the society... I request you to kindly look into the matter and stop him (from participating) in the Gurgaon Comedy Festival.” The festival organisers claimed they had received multiple calls threatening disruption of the event, and possible violence. Even when the festival’s details were shared on social media, there was a backlash from many people, leaving Faruqui with no space to exhibit his craft.

The organisers claimed they had consulted the comic before arriving at the decision to revoke the invitation extended to him. An official said, “It was a joint decision taken by Munawar and us to drop him. We received several calls to drop him. Our job is to entertain people and we don’t want any controversy. So, keeping in mind the public, the decision was taken.”

Faruqui, though, was far from surprised. He had already tweeted his disappointment after the cancellation of his show in Bengaluru in end November, and even expressed the view that he had had enough and was quitting the space. The Bengaluru Police had asked the organisers of his show titled “From Dongri to Nowhere” to call off the performance citing law and order issues. The organisers were reminded that other shows of Faruqui, dubbed a “controversial figure”, had been cancelled in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Raipur, too, as he had apparently “insulted” Hindu gods and goddesses. At most places, Bajrang Dal volunteers used strong-arm tactics to compel the organisers to send Faruqui packing from their event. When the organisers initially refused to accede to their request, the Bajrang Dal members allegedly threatened violence in Surat and Ahmedabad, much like what other Hindu outfits sought to do in Haryana with the Gurgaon show.

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According to the organisers, the Bengaluru show was cancelled after they received threats and the police withdrew permission to hold the event. “We were planning to hold the show…. We wanted to give a portion of the proceeds from the show to Shakthidhama, a women’s rehabilitation centre that the late Kannada actor Puneeth Rajkumar was involved with. We had also held talks with the actor’s team,” an official told the media, adding, “We are disappointed that the show was stopped abruptly by the police at the last minute.”

Faruqui posted in his Instagram account: “Hate has won. Artist has lost. I am done. Injustice.” He later stated, “I get 50 threat calls every day. I had to change my SIM card thrice. When the number gets leaked, people call up and abuse me. Everyone is targeted. In my case, they use my religion. That scares me.”

Noted activist-academic Apoorvanand agreed that the attacks had more to do with the comic’s faith than the content of his show. He said: “We must accept that it is Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim, who is under attack, for being a Muslim. This is bullying of a Muslim by the affiliates and fellow travellers of the RSS, with the connivance of the law-and-order apparatus. It is not his jokes that are making ‘Hindus’ angry. The bans on Faruqui have nothing to do with the jokes he might have cracked. Munawar had not cracked any joke in Indore when he was arrested. He had to remain in jail for days. You made an excuse that Munawar was going to crack a joke against Hindu gods and goddesses. It was an excuse to attack a Muslim. You make different pretexts to attack a Muslim. In one pretext, Akhlaq was accused of eating beef. If he was eating beef, who are you to attack him? But you made an excuse, spread an utter lie. You invent different kinds of excuses to attack and kill Muslims.

“I would go a step further, now you have a regime where you don’t even need an excuse to kill a Muslim. I don’t understand why they have to invent an excuse. Now, if the (mob) tells you to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’, you say it, otherwise, they kill you. It is your being a Muslim that makes it a fit case for some to be attacked. Whether you are a bangle-seller or a dosa-seller, whatever it may be. I may be opening a shop or a restaurant, you come and protest, saying you are defiling my land. It happened in Gujarat. I buy a house. I pay fully for it. You come and say I am trying to change the demographics of the place, of the mohalla, as happened in Moradabad. So for Munawar, too, it was not about the joke. It was about the name, Munawar Faruqui.”

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The noted sociologist Avijit Pathak asked: “Where are we going? This kind of repression is unheard of. This denial of chance to perform is ridiculous. It is similar to the Fab India advertisement controversy. They objected to the use of Urdu then. Here they are concerned about the jokes he might crack. We forget that we have a rich tradition of satire in this country. It is sad. It is a tactic to browbeat the larger society that nobody should speak up against the government. The more powerful you are, the more fearful you become. You cannot bear any alternative or critical voice. Such insecurity and fear and inability to even bear humour or satire, or converse with any other voice is a symptom of a totalitarian mind and culture.”

This denial of voice also amounts to denial of right to livelihood. As a stand-up comic, Faruqui is dependent on his paid shows to make a living. Just as a bangle-seller was not allowed to make a living or a Muslim dosa-seller was forced to shut shop because he had named his shop after a Hindu god, Faruqui, too, has been prevented from giving a performance where he might crack a joke at the expense of the majority community. At least that is what frequent complainants claimed as they urged the organisers to call off his performance.

The advocate Ehtesham Hashmi, who represented Tasneem, the bangle seller who was imprisoned in Madhya Pradesh before being released on bail on December 7 by the Indore High Court, says: “It is a violation of freedom of speech. It is also a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. We must remember Article 21 also includes the right to earn a livelihood.” Fellow advocate Rajneesh Chunni added: “It is very unfortunate to see such kinds of bans happening every now and then. We need to understand the fact that there is also a livelihood of the artists attached to the comedy shows. Vis-a-vis all this, the artist too needs to understand the sentiments of the public.”

Climate of intolerance

Faruqui has suffered for long in this climate of intolerance where entire polity and society feels challenged at a possible joke the comic might share on stage. On January 1 this year, Faruqui was arrested from a cafe in Indore following a complaint by Eklavya Singh Gaud, son of the BJP MLA Malini Singh, and the man behind an outfit called Hindu Rakshak Sanghatan. Gaud alleged that Faruqui had cracked jokes against Hindu gods and goddesses and made fun of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The Madhya Pradesh Police immediately booked Faruqui under Section 295 of the IPC for hurting religious sentiments, although they admitted that they had no evidence of the comic cracking such jokes at the event.

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Faruqui was arrested and sent to Indore jail. His bail application was rejected twice by the Indore Sessions Court, and then by the Madhya Pradesh High Court. In early February, the Supreme Court granted him interim bail. However, despite the apex court’s order, the Indore jail authorities initially refused to release Faruqui, claiming they had not received the order. He was finally released after his advocate said the delay amounted to contempt of the Supreme Court.

Since then, right-wing activists and goons have targeted Faruqui, constantly heckling him and forcing organisers to call off his shows. It is akin to banning an author for a book he might write or an actor from a film he might act in. The police, be it in Gujarat or Karnataka, instead of taking on threats of violence and assuring the stand-up artist of their support, have advised that the events be cancelled citing the possible law and order problems. In Gurgaon, too, this was the template.

For Faruqui, whether it is imprisonment in January or banishment from the professional stage afterwards, it has meant an exile from the right to earn a livelihood, with attendant threats to life and limb.

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