Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui is out on bail after being incarcerated for over a month on trumped-up charges.
Faruqui was arrested in Indore on a complaint by the vigilante son of a Bharatiya Janata Party politician who interrupted a New Year’s Eve gig at which he was performing, accusing him of hurting Hindu sentiments by joking about Hindu deities and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The police said that it did not matter that Faruqui had not actually done what he was accused of doing.
A High Court judge who denied him bail, said he had the “wrong mindset” and that “such people must not be spared”. Also not spared, and still in jail awaiting a bail hearing, are the event organisers and a friend of Faruqui’s. The message is clear – anyone associated with Faruqui or supporting his work can also expect to be treated the same way.
This ensures that Faruqui, at least for a time, is silenced.
His lightly handled, sometimes darkly comic routine included, among a great deal else, takedowns of social stereotypes, of widespread communal attitudes and communal violence, politics in general and the BJP in particular. His act, in a mix of Hindi and English, had a growing audience. Its lived-experience edginess was perfectly encapsulated in the banner at the end of his videos: “If it makes you laugh, it’s a joke. If it offends you, it’s the truth.”
Faruqui likely pursued his increasingly sharp comedy in the belief that as an Indian he was covered by a capacious Constitution and had protection of the law, as well as a mixed audience that laughed out loud and cheered him on.
What he discovered, on New Year’s Day was what a lot of young Muslims have discovered over the last seven years – that their rights as Indians to equal protection of the law depends entirely on which political masters the thana, and the court, answer to. That being articulate, self-assured and political, standing up to the majoritarian political project while being Muslim can, in a flash, deprive you (and those who support you) of your liberty.
Bail, such a rarity in these times, grants you freedom from incarceration, but it does not grant you a fair and timely hearing (or a hearing at all) in a court of law on the charges brought against you. And it does not protect you against more trumped-up cases being brought against you anywhere in the country. A vindictive regime has you in its sights and can come for you at anytime and anywhere, should you again assert your right to challenge their ideological project.
At this moment there are many young Muslims in jail, several on sedition changes. These young people, educated at India’s finest universities – among them Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Usmani, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Gulfisha Fatima – like Munawar Faruqui, defy the easy stereotypes the BJP uses as weapons in its political campaigns.
They are in jail for speaking their minds, calling attention to systemic discrimination and inequalities that are central to the BJP’s majoritarian project, or for organising protests to oppose an iniquitous law – the Citizenship Amendment Act. They are in jail because they had the temerity to assert their right to equal citizenship and an equal voice in the public sphere.
Vilified as traitors
The Modi-BJP has pursued critics of all stripes since it first came to power in 2014 and it has gone to great lengths to demonise them. Intellectuals, political activists, students have been vilified as traitors – whether they were highlighting the murders of rationalists, the Hindutva mob vigilante’s lynching of Muslims under cover of cow protection, or the assault on academic freedom in universities or, as right now, the protesting against new farm laws. But the Modi-led BJP saved its special ire for Muslims who dared to stand up. As the peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act grew the government’s determination to create a violent conflagration grew.
In the months preceding the arrival of Covid-19 they unleashed a reign of violence against Muslims in Adityanath-run Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where Amit Shah’s home ministry controls the police. BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh vigilantes protected by the police, and the police, assaulted Muslims on the streets and in their homes and destroyed Muslim businesses and in Delhi burnt down 16 community mosques and a dargah. They then booked their Muslim victims on charges of committing violence and damaging property. The aim was to turn Muslims into cowering supplicants, grateful just to survive.
Through this entire period, Munawar Faruqui, who lives in Mumbai, managed to keep doing what he does best – test the limits of people’s ability to laugh at themselves or at their own, takedown the powerful with well-timed one-liners and bust the stereotypes of Muslims that the BJP promotes. Through the pandemic his online audience grew and his act became sharper and more polished, it even included his family’s experience, when he was a child, of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in a Modi-BJP-run Gujarat.
Then he went to Indore – a town in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh – and he came face-to-face once in with the diabolical inversion of the law that is used against Muslims in BJP-run India.
Faruqui’s audience is still rooting for him. But will the venues he performed at now be open to him with a case still registered against him in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh and only a temporarily stayed production warrant from a court in BJP-run Uttar Pradesh, and Hindutva vigilantes at large everywhere?
Anjali Mody is a journalist in New Delhi.