Diasporic Indian organisations, Indian and international stand-up comics, along with filmmakers, artists, and writers have issued a statement calling for the full dismissal of all charges against comedian Munawar Faruqui and five others arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. They said the case reinforces deep concerns around the rights to liberty and freedom of speech in India.

The 100 plus signatories include writer Arundhati Roy, actors Swara Bhaskar, Pooja Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Shonali Bose and documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, as well as Indian stand-up comedians Kunal Kamra, Sanjay Rajoura, among others. International signatories include United States-based authors Amitava Kumar and Tanya Selvaratnam, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and British architect Sofia Karim.

The statement said that Faruqui faces criminal charges of “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings” among other sections of the Indian Penal Code, for jokes he never cracked, in a performance that did not take place. Uttar Pradesh Police has also sought Faruqui’s arrest on equally absurd charges, it added.

“We call for the dropping or dismissal of these trumped-up charges for all six individuals,” the statement said.

Faruqui’s case, the statement said, showed that institutions of a “changing India” appear to be colluding to give out a message that humour threatens the powerful. “And humour by a Muslim man in India will not be tolerated by Hindu supremacists,” it said.

The signatories said that Faruqui, whose performances include commentary on contemporary politics and society, took risks that all artists take. But the stakes were higher for him.

“He comes from a humble background,” they said. “His family lost their home during the large-scale 2002 violence in Gujarat, and moved to Mumbai where Munawar sold utensils and did other odd jobs during the day and studied at night. He started stand-up comedy just two years ago, quickly garnering some success.”

The signatories said they were alarmed that in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy, a stand-up artist was imprisoned for over a month, and faces serious criminal charges, for no crime. “We call for an end to this persecution of Munawar Faruqui, his associates, and all other performers, who must have the right in any real democracy to use their art to comment on their times,” they added.

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Meanwhile, Director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection Julie Trébault, said the arrest of Faruqui, his friends and associates was nothing short of a violation of their fundamental right to free speech and expression. “We condemn the arbitrary arrests of these artists and call for their immediate release, as well as dropping all charges that have been made against them,” Trébault said.

Reclaiming India, in a statement released during its South Asian American stand-up comedy special in
support of Faruqui, said his case encapsulated “so much of what is happening in India in recent years” in terms of rising discrimination and violence toward Muslims and other minorities, towards artists and members of the media, and towards any public figure who dares to voice their dissent against the government.

The case

Faruqui was arrested on January 1 from a cafe in Indore on a complaint by the vigilante son of a Bharatiya Janata Party politician who alleged that objectionable statements about Hindu deities were going to be made at the comedian’s show. People present at the club say that the police detained him before he had actually started performing. On January 4, the Indore Police, too, admitted that there was no visual evidence to show that Faruqui had insulted Hindu deities.

Along with Faruqui, four others – Nalin Yadav, Prakhar Vyas, Edwin Anthony and Priyam Vyas – were also arrested on similar charges. A day later, Faruqui’s friend Sadaqat Khan, a Mumbai-based engineer, was arrested for allegedly making abusive remarks about complainant Eklavya Singh Gaur, the chief of Hindutva group Hind Rakshak Sangathan.

While Faruqui was granted interim relief by the Supreme Court February 5, the Madhya Pradesh High Court on February 12 gave bail to Edwin Anthony and Prakhar Vyas. His brother Priyam Vyas, a juvenile, is also out on bail. However, a sessions court in Indore has rejected Khan’s bail plea twice.