New Delhi: International and Indian stand-up comedians, filmmakers, artists and writers have issued a statement calling for the dismissal of all charges against Munawar Faruqui, Nalin Yadav, Prakhar Vyas, Edwin Anthony, and Sadakat Khan.
“As artists and concerned individuals, we are 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,” the statement, which includes prominent signatories like Rajmohan Gandhi, Arundhati Roy, Mallika Sarabhai, Swara Bhaskar, Pooja Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Shonali Bose and Anand Patwardhan, said.
A long list of Indian stand-up stars, including Kunal Kamra, Sanjay Rajoura, Anuvab Pal, Prashasti Singh, Aravind SA, Urooj Dingankar and Anirban Dasgupta, among others are also signatories. International signatories include US-based authors Amitava Kumar and Tanya Selvaratnam, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, filmmaker Shruti Rya Ganguly, and UK-based architect Sofia Karim, and feminist activist from Brazil, Sonia Corrêa.
Stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui, along with four others, was arrested in Indore on January 2 following a complaint by the son of a local BJP MLA who alleged that the comic had made objectionable comments about Hindu deities and Union home minister Amit Shah at a comedy show.
The police later admitted that the comedian’s act had not even started, but justified his arrest on the claims that he was ‘going to’ make these jokes. After spending more than a month in jail, Faruqui was granted interim bail by the Supreme Court on February 5.
The statement was spearheaded by diasporic Indian group Progressive India Collective in partnership with Freemuse, Reclaiming India, a joint initiative of the global Indian diaspora comprising Dalit Solidarity Forum, the Global Indian Progressive Alliance, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch International, Indian American Muslim Council, and Students Against Hindutva Ideology, and the Artists at Risk Connection by free speech non-profit PEN America, which has a membership of over 7500 novelists, journalists and writing professionals.
“Comedy and satire are necessary to ensure a healthy democracy, as they facilitate the free communication of new ideas and critical thinking,” Director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, Julie Trébault said and added that Faruqui’s arrest 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.
“Faruqui is one individual, but a young, outspoken Muslim comedian. His case encapsulates so much of what is happening in India in recent years. We are seeing rising discrimination and violence toward Muslims and other minorities, towards artists and members of the media, and towards any public figure who dares to dissent against the government. That is why we, as young South Asian Americans, are taking a stand in solidarity with Faruqui, and South Asia’s numerous others prisoners of conscience,” a statement by Reclaiming India said.
Noting that while Faruqui had been released on bail, the statement said that the charges against him in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh remain. “We call for the dropping or dismissal of these trumped-up charges for all six individuals,” the signatories said.
The statement also noted that Faruqui faces criminal charges of “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings” for jokes he never cracked, in a performance that did not take place and that the state of Uttar Pradesh had also sought his arrest on “equally absurd charges”.
It further noted that while Munawar took risks that all artists take, the stakes were higher for him. “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 statement said.
“The institutions of a changing India appear to be colluding to give out a message—humour threatens the powerful. And humour by a Muslim man in India will not be tolerated by Hindu supremacists,” the statement read and called for an end to the 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”.