An Indian court on Thursday refused to grant bail to a Muslim stand-up comedian who has been accused of cracking jokes offensive to Hindus, in a case that has raised concerns about free speech and the protection of minority rights.
Munawar Faruqui’s lawyers have argued that the 30-year-old from Gujarat did not say anything that could hurt someone’s religious feelings during a show in the city of Indore, in Madhya Pradesh state, on 1 January. Members of a right-wing Hindu group ambushed Mr Faruqui at the show and brought him to a police station, where he was taken into custody.
Indore resident Nalin Yadav, another accused in the case, was also denied bail by the Madhya Pradesh High Court on Thursday as the judge observed that “the evidence collected so far suggest that in an organised public show under the garb of stand-up comedy at a public place on commercial lines, prima facie; scurrilous, disparaging utterances, outraging religious feelings of a class of citizens of India with deliberate intendment, were made by the (bail) applicant”.
High Court judge Rohit Arya noted in his order that: “It is the constitutional duty of every citizen of the country and also of the states to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India."
Beside Mr Faruqui and Mr Yadav, four others — Sadakat Khan, Edvin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas, and Priyam Vyas — were charged under various sections of the Indian law based on a complaint filed by Eklavya Gaur, the son of a local politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Gaur alleged that the comedian made remarks that “insulted" Hindu deities, as well as home minister Amit Shah.
“It is not a case of no evidence. More so, the investigation is in progress," Justice Arya said in his order.
He further noted that the complainant has made the assertion that, “the applicant along with other co-accused persons allegedly making outraging filthy jokes in social media deliberately against Hindu Gods, Lord Shriram and Goddess Seeta hurting religious sentiments of Hindus for the last 18 months despite, protest on various social media platforms" and "there is nothing on record to the contrary”.
Within days of his arrest, a police official in Indore told the Indian Express that they have no video evidence from the New Year’s Day gig of Mr Faruqui “insulting Hindu deities or Union Minister Amit Shah”.
Several media reports pointed towards the fact that Mr Faruqui did not even get a chance to perform his set on 1 January before he was confronted on stage by Mr Gaur.
Another police official, Vijay Khatri, told the news portal Article 14 that “it didn’t really matter” if Mr Faruqui made the jokes, because he was “going to”, basing his assumption on oral evidence submitted by the complainants who claimed to have overheard the comics make jokes offensive to Hindu gods during rehearsals.
So I have a joke to share in honour of comedians and cartoonists who've been under pressure, in jail or facing cases lately.
"Free speech in this country."
That's it. That's the joke. 👍🏾
— Nilanjana Roy (@nilanjanaroy) January 28, 2021
While Mr Faruqui’s case has triggered a conversation around freedom of expression in a country whose constitution guarantees free speech, some cautioned against labelling it as a matter of identity politics, because Hindus are also among those incarcerated and denied bail in the case.
Mr Faruqui’s peers responded to the development by urging comics to remain true to their art.
“I think the best thing we can do is write jokes. About everything under the sun, including the people who take jokes too seriously. Until there are too many jokes to get upset at and too many of us to lock up. Privately, we will all do what we can to help him (Mr Faruqui) and each other. But there is nothing more powerful than using your art form,” comedian Vir Das told The Independent.
Another stand-up comic, Neeti Palta, said: “I think we need a clearly defined law that draws clear guidelines about what spoken words are prosecutable. Is he really such a criminal that he can’t even get bail? While it’s ok for criminals to be members of parliament? Or for political parties to use religion and incite hate to win votes?
"This whole thing feels like a joke and a really unpalatable one at that. No comedian sets out to deliberately offend people. There is nothing to be gained from hate for us at least.”
#MunawarFaruqui's bail request has been rejected by the MP HC. The police has said there is no evidence that he hurt religious sentiments. On what grounds then has bail been rejected? This is a travesty of justice & a shameful display of vindictive prosecution by the BJP govt!
— Shama Mohamed (@drshamamohd) January 28, 2021
On 25 January, the same judge hearing the bail plea observed that “such people must not be spared." However, on Thursday, he said "the observations, if any made in the order on facts are only for the purpose of deciding these bail applications and shall have no bearing on the pending trial.”
Saad Sheikh, a friend of Mr Faruqui, told Reuters that his family was "very disheartened" by the bail decision, in a country where an overburdened legal system can take years to bring cases to a conclusion.
"Today is his birthday and we cannot organise anything for him. He is lodged in the jail and he has apologised also," he said.
Mr Faruqui’s case is not being prosecuted in isolation. Recently, a police complaint was filed against the makers of the Amazon Prime web series Tandav, alleging that scenes in the programme’s first episode insulted Hindu gods and goddesses. India’s apex court declined to grant interim protection from arrest to the makers.
Similarly, the Netflix/BBC TV adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy came under fire from conservative groups in India after it showed a scene with a Hindu woman and a Muslim man kissing in front of a temple.