No laughing matter as comedians face political resistance and censure in India

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Indian comedian Munawar Faruqui has indicated he's quitting stand-up comedy after his show in the southern city of Bengaluru was cancelled this month following protests by Hindu right-wing groups, who say his material is offensive.

In an Instagram post, Faruqui lamented that 12 of his shows has been scrapped over the past two months because of threats.

“This is the end. Good bye! I am done ... Hatred won and the artist lost,” he wrote.

Days after Faruqui's exit, well-known stand-up artist Kunal Kamra’s events in the city were also cancelled amid threats to shut down the venue.

In a post captioned “Cancelling comedy shows 101,” Kamra, who is based in Mumbai, wrote: “I guess this is also part of the Covid protocol and new guidelines. I suppose I am seen as a variant of the virus now.”

Crackdown on comedy

Both Faruqui and Kamra are part of a long line of stand-up comedians and satirists who have been intimidated or arrested in recent years for hurting religious or national sentiments.

In November, one of India’s other top comedians, Vir Das, found himself at the centre of a raging controversy after police complaints were lodged against him.

He was criticized over a comedy monologue in which he spoke of the country’s paradoxes on women’s safety, religion and politics.

His "I come from two Indias" show was performed on a US tour at the Kennedy Centre to a sell-out audience that went viral. But Das was accused of defaming India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night," Das said in his show.

"I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarian, and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.”

No space for satire

Indian comedians are facing a crackdown for taking political swipes at authorities. The space for political satire is diminishing even though they act as an effective opposition voice.

Many have had run-ins with authorities for simply being daring enough to directly mock the political system.

Other comics have also faced a backlash on grounds of “hurting” sentiments, religious or otherwise.

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In July 2020, comedian Agrima Joshua received rape threats and and was threatened with legal action after a video of hers making jokes about the Maharashtra government’s Shivaji statue project in the Arabian Sea went viral on social media.

Four years ago, comedian Tanmay Bhat was booked and complaint registered against him for defamation after he tweeted a meme of Prime Minister Modi with a dog filter on Snapchat. The case was taken up by the Cyber Cell of the Mumbai Police.

“The impulse of any artist being a calculative move in itself is the slow death of the art-from,” Kamra, who has nearly two million subscribers on YouTube, told RFI.

Willing to stand up

However, at a time when large sections of the mainstream media, film stars, and entertainers are seen as being co-opted by a majoritarian political establishment, a handful of comics are bucking the trend. These comics are still packing a punch.

Vasu Primlani, India’s first openly gay comic is not apprehensive of taking up issues like homophobia, gender and sexuality in her stand-up comedy and most of it is done in her trademark deadpan delivery.

“Political statements in India are censured at best, and dissent is criminalised. You will remember I was jailed in 2014,” said Primlani.

In her shows, she uses humour to address the twin challenges of being gay and a woman in India, where gay sex was only decriminalised in 2018 as awareness of both women’s and LGBT rights grew.

Similarly, Sanjay Rajoura, known for his razor-sharp wit believes matters have become worse than before in the country for comedians which was evident from the Munawar Faruqui episode.

“There is an audience for stand-up comedy even in small towns, where people respond to jokes on issues related to daily life," says Rajoura.

As part of the three-member group called "Aisi Taisi Democracy" or "Democracy be damned", the unit takes up all issues from governance to patriotism and politics, which has won them wide recognition.

Their only motto is that nothing is sacred in their performances and there are no holy cows – even in India.

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