If a Comedian Can Be Arrested for a Remark He Didn't Make, Is the Joke on Us?

As joking becomes a crime in the world's largest democracy, The Wire's Arfa Khanum Sherwani discusses with three guests on how political comedy is becoming dangerous in India.

This is the full translated transcript of a panel discussion on Munawar Faruqui’s arrest. This article was first published on January 11, 2021 and is being republished on November 29, 2021, after several of Faruqui’s shows were cancelled across India because of pressure from right-wing groups.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Hello and welcome to The Wire, I am Arfa Khanum Sherwani. In the world’s largest democracy, it is now a crime to crack jokes. You can be jailed for joking. Indore Police arrested well-known comedian Munawar Faruqui and alleged that he made derogatory remarks about Amit Shah and Hindu gods and goddesses.

The police later admitted that no such remarks were made about Hindu gods and goddesses. Despite that, this person has been in jail from January 1 to 5. Till now, journalists, opposition political leaders, social activists, even lawyers were being targeted but now political satire…if anyone cracks jokes on politics, it will be considered a crime. Such a novel situation is being created. The scenario looks similar to that of the blasphemy law of Pakistan. An informal version of that law can now be seen in India.

Like I said, other than journalists, social activists or even opposition political leaders, even joking has become a crime in the largest democracy of the world. With me, I have three special guests, who joke but whilst joking, talk about such serious issues that people like us political science students and political commentators  might find it difficult to say.

Perhaps this is the reason that even humour has become hurtful to our ruling class, to our political parties. I have three special guests with me Sanjay Rajoura, who is a satirist and political commentator; Agrima Joshua, who is a commentator I would call her not a political commentator but a commentator who explains politics through comedy; and I also have with me, a newcomer in the field, Parvez Hassan, whose video I saw today and decided that he must come and talk on our platform and tell us what the new talent, the young blood, feels about this situation.

Sanjay, you are the most experienced in this field, hence I’d like to start this discussion with you. Is the situation of political commentary along with comedy, or satirical comedy fast becoming dangerous in India? Have people like you become daredevils?

Sanjay Rajoura: This is precisely the situation for satire. A perfect world has no place for satire. If everything’s fine, justice is being meted out, everyone has their rights then no one needs satire. The current situation of scarcity of thought, of mind, of love is what is perfect for satire. It is a breeding ground [for satire].

The more the situation becomes like this, the more refined satire emerges. This is a given. What happens is that when you are told ‘do not talk about X or Y’, then it becomes a sort of a responsibility of satire to refine its language in such a way that it says what it wants to. This is not the first time it is happening in the world.

Wherever satire has flourished in the world, this has happened. Such a situation has been created and has led to the emergence of beautiful satire. And this will continue to happen in the future. Neither is satire going to die, nor will there ever be a perfect world where there is no place for satire. So such things will continue to happen and satire would also continue.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: When you see people like Munawar Faruqui being attacked…I read reports of people at the cafe who said that he had been talking for only four-five minutes. Neither did he make any derogatory remarks about any Hindu gods, nor did he talk about any politician. He hadn’t even begun talking, he hadn’t even said anything, his show hadn’t properly begun, but he was immediately attacked. Many people are saying that this attack was because of Munawar’s Muslim identity.

Sanjay Rajoura: It’s possible that his identity had a role to play. A few months ago, Agrima witnessed the storm that rose up against stand-up comedians, which engulfed everyone, including Hindus. Agrima is a Christian herself. Hindus too were targeted. Obviously, his Muslim identity made it easier [for the mob] to target him. The more important thing for me is that if you disagree with what someone [a comedian] says and I’m not saying that you cannot disagree…and it’s completely fair…you can disagree with what someone says then don’t go there [to the comedian’s set]!

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And if what someone is saying has hurt your sentiments, then there is a whole procedure for that in law. You may go and follow the procedure. Later, the courts will decide the matter. Arresting or catching hold of someone by yourself is a new process. It’s not in our law, it’s a new process. Instead of questions… I mean I agree that he is Muslim…however, equally important is the question that is this process a new norm? A mob catches hold of someone and says ‘I don’t like what you are saying, I’ll send you to jail’. Is this new norm fair?

Henceforth is this what is going to be followed? Discussing these questions, too, is equally important. Like I said, a few months ago everyone was targeted. Everything is getting mixed the majority’s authoritarianism, minority’s persecution and in addition to this, mob mentality, the collapse of law and order and this whole idea that you cannot question the government. All of these have come together to create a certain kind of monster that will bite the same people back. Make no mistake about that. The snake will eat its own tail one day. It has happened before.

So those people…they are part of that mob who were against Agrima or others, they have even been against me. Actually, these people are victims themselves. They feel that there is power in being the mob, but if one sees…see, Arfa, I always give this example: when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, the moral legitimacy to raze it was given in the living rooms of people like us. We used to have discussions that said yes, the mosque should be felled. Middle-class, upper-middle class people used to discuss this over tea and snacks.

But eventually, who demolished the mosque? None of these people went to demolish it. The person who neither had anything to eat, nor a job, nor a future, nor even any security, went to demolish it. That’s what a foot soldier is. Similarly, those who are foot soldiers currently… maybe one or two might have political connections but a majority would be those who are victims of the system. And this system is so cunning that it makes its victims do its tasks.

This is the pattern of all exploitative systems. So, this monster has been created because of the aggregation of all these things. Has this monster now become the norm should be a question which is equally important to the question of whether Munawar is Hindu or Muslim. And this monster will surely eat its victim too, one day. It’s a Frankenstein monster. It’s not going to go away without devouring it’s own victim.

One last thing that I would like to say. As a comic, if anything that I have said hurts someone, I have two options: one, do I have to foster enmity towards that person? Or do I have to make him talk to me and tell him that it is your story that I am narrating. I don’t have the first option. I don’t want to foster enmity. The second thing can be done only in a way that one says what one wants to so that it reaches that person. Sometimes it can be shortcomings of language, because of which we are not able to speak in his language. But ultimately, this is what should happen. We don’t have to fight him.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Absolutely. We don’t have to fight them and we have to understand their psychology. Another small question that I want to ask before I turn to the other panelists is: this politics we see now a Muslim boy cannot marry a Hindu girl, love jihad is being brought into this; saffron flags are being raised in front of Taj Mahal; money is being asked for in the name of temples, processions are being carried out in front of mosques and dargahs…this very mob that goes and stops Munawar Faruqui saying that he cannot even make a comment. Is this is an extension of that same mob? Is this the same ideology?

Sanjay Rajoura: Yes, it is very much the same ideology. It is an extension of majoritarianism that…Hindu Rashtra is not a part of the constitution. There are other religions too and all of them have the same equal rights. The discourse that you cannot separate the country from Hindutva is a new pattern. And this new pattern is arriving… it has arrived in many parts of the world in the past but its consequences have to be reaped.

And the consequences will not only be reaped for you, me, Agrima and Parvez to reap. The consequences will be reaped by all those who have brought this. I am not prophecising this, whoever has read history has seen that consequences have to be reaped by everyone and it is to avoid a situation of those consequences that people like journalists, filmmakers, writers, activists or stand-up comics such voices must be raised. Attempts are being made to suppress them because it is uncomfortable for those in power. But actually this is hurting everyone.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Agrima, you’re one of those comedians who in a way have been at the receiving end. When you decided to pursue comedy and made politics a subject of it did you ever think that….and this is a big irony  on one hand, a serious subject and on the other, comedy. When did you realise that we became so thin-skinned that now we can’t tolerate a small joke? Everything offends our religion culture and our society.

Agrima Joshua: Firstly, I would like to clarify that whenever somebody enters [the field of] stand-up comedy, we don’t think that we will do comedy on a particular topic, that we will make jokes on politics or that satire will become our entire personality. We talk about what we think is funny. And as far as politics is concerned, you’d also realise that a lot of times, young people talk like this. Those who are much older, much more knowledgeable than me say that the personal is political.

Also read: Backstory: Journalism and the Power of Laughter

If you think about it, my entire existence is political. Because I am a minority in Uttar Pradesh. I am not the typical Goan, Catholic, English-speaking Christian. I’m a Christian from Uttar Pradesh. I’ve explored my entire background through my comedy. I crack jokes about things personal to me about my personal relationships. During that if some political issue is raised, then immediately people say that she is a political commentator, she’s doing political satire and why can’t she stick to jokes.

But you make jokes about what you find funny. And if you read today’s news headlines you would definitely laugh at them sometimes. You do feel like laughing at the GDP figures. So it’s just about what you find funny. And you’ll only crack jokes on the topic that is relevant. You won’t make fun of the government of four or five years ago. We took out a funeral procession for them!

You may see AIB’s video. There is a proper funeral of the Indian National Congress carried out by all the boys [of AIB]. All I am saying is that we make fun of those people that are relevant, who should be talked about. Nobody thinks that I would do political comedy, this would be my subject before doing that. It’s not like you will talk about yourself your personal experiences whatever personal problems you want to talk about. So, according to me there’s no comedian on the Indian political scene who’s not political. Generally. I’d like to clarify that.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: You put this very wonderfully. Those people who are deciding for us… and I would even go to the extent of saying that they have made a joke out of 130 crore people. Those people should definitely be talked about. Where there is power, their would be responsibility and there will be accountability. And demanding these answers… there are various ways in which we do that.

Parvez Hassan tell me, just now, Agrima Joshua said that she’s a minority, she lives in a hostile state. Did you also feel like this when you were doing stand-up comedy? I was watching your videos, and you talk about your identity and the problems and the difficulties you face because of that identity. You transformed that into humour. So did this identity hurt you first and then you decided if you want talk about it? How did you feel? I would also want to know, what was the reaction of the audience?

Parvez Hassan: So I was saying that I definitely include my personal experiences. For example, in one video, I’m talking about how we think of Muslims as terrorists. If a bearded man is sitting with a bag, one gets scared that the bag holds a bomb in it. That kind of thing has happened in the last 10-20 years. Although I am a Muslim but I don’t know that. It’s just something that people say that I am a Muslim. I’m just a human being. So, I too sometimes feel afraid of people like that. Because it’s been put in our heads to not trust such people. So, that’s why I wrote that thing. I think that’s what I was trying to convey in that set.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: You also mentioned how you made a joke out of your Muslim identity. Did you feel that sentiments of Muslims could be hurt by this? How did the majority the Hindu population receive this? I saw many people laugh when you joked about your identity being conflated with that of a terrorist.

Parvez Hassan: There was that satire behind it. I am portraying myself as being at risk but my intention was to convey that that’s how people portray us…that’s what people conceive of us. I tried to convey how people see us. Ultimately, some people understand this, some don’t. The same thing happens in YouTube comments. Some say ‘wow, said the right thing about yourself’. Some say, ‘we understand what you go through’. There are both kinds of people. I think it depends on how the viewer perceives it. So, I think it’s a mix.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: In that clip of yours, Parvez, there was a certain discomfort. You expressed that discomfort through satire. Maybe you took it as a joke but there can be a lot of people who have to go through these troubles because of their identity.

Tell me, when you’re preparing your script or when you decide to go in front of an audience, does it occupy your mind since you are a Muslim, you cannot talk about Hindu gods, about Hindu culture? Or that in the current scenario, I should be careful? Do these thoughts occupy your mind?

Parvez Hassan: Yes, definitely. All of this does occupy my mind. Since my name is Parvez, I know that [what happened to] Munawar might happen [to me too]…if I talk about Hindu gods or make jokes on Hinduism. I might intend it as a joke but people will not take it so. They will see it as a Muslim man mocking them [Hindus]. So, that occupies the mind.

Generally, we try… generally, none of us intend to mock. There is always a story behind it…always a reason behind why one wants to talk about it. So, we try to balance it. We joke about Islam. We joke about Christianity Agrima too, jokes about Christianity. It’s just that people don’t see it. One 20 second clip about Hindu gods goes viral and based on it a controversy erupts.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: And it’s also important to clarify here that it’s not that the Hindu community alone that is very sensitive and gets offended at the slightest mention of Hindu gods. Many followers of Islam that I have seen, too, are very sensitive. Maybe even more sensitive. Whether it comes to drawing cartoons or something else, they bring in the religious aspects.

But Agrima, the difference is if those in power are this sensitive, then the police, investigators, courts support that sensitivity and bullying. I want to take the example of Pakistan. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is mostly used against Hindu or Christian minorities. Do you feel that even in India, this unwritten rule or informally, this sort of a blasphemy can be seen?

Agrima Joshua: The law on hurting religious sentiments [says it] is a non-bailable offence. That is how important that law is. That is the importance that was given to that law. That is the level of regard given to religious sentiments of people. And now the same law is being used to censor those voices of people that expose those occupying power. The jokes that comedians crack are on the government’s failures. We are not going to become yes-men for the government. That’s Godi media’s job. It’s not something we do.

We will point those things out where the government is failing. There is a pattern to the comedians who have been attacked. You may see their social media, their Twitter and the jokes they crack. There is a pattern they make fun of the government. The government is not made up of gods and goddesses. People always ask me why am I against God and I always want to reply by asking when did our government become gods?

None of us comedians are stupid enough to mock or say anything disrespectful about anyone’s gods or goddesses in a country as sensitive as India. Although even if someone does, then, according to me, they should have the permission to say it.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Sanjay, I want to ask that is it the job of a satirist to constantly expand the boundaries of freedom of expression, of what can and cannot be said? Is it is the satirist’s job to test people sensitivities? Do you think those things that hurt people, too should be said to expand boundaries?

And secondly, like Agrima said, since when did politicians, ministers, the prime minister, our ruling class… when did they become gods? Do you think that the job of democratic institutions to protect freedom of expression, like in the case of Munawar, when the case against him was brought to it, the court should have struck it down immediately. He wouldn’t have been sent to judicial custody and maybe we wouldn’t be having this debate today.

Do you think that while satirists are trying to extend these boundaries, our democratic institutions and especially courts – are not playing the role they should?

Sanjay Rajoura: I will come to the courts later, first I’d like to talk about the comedian’s job. The task of any art form is to constantly push the boundaries. Culturally, a society evolves only when it pushes its boundaries. This includes every art form cinema, literature, street theatre, normal [sic] theatre, music. Their task is to constantly push the envelope. Are comedians doing their job is a complicated question.

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Personally…other than one or two, I am not familiar with stand-up comedy. I don’t watch it very much. I am not that interested, not because they’re not good but because my humour is a bit underdeveloped and I don’t have a lot of interest in it anyway. Are comedians pushing the envelope is a question similar to… see, I’ve held that that if stand-up comedy is trying to hold up a mirror to society, who is holding up a mirror to stand up comedians? When people say that the opposition is paying you money, you’re just making up stories and all that sort of thing, I reply by saying that I am a story too.

I am narrating a story of my life and I have the right to talk about whatever is happening in my life. If that hurts your feelings and sentiments, then then you should ask yourself why does whatever has happened to this person hurt my feelings? Secondly, who is holding up a mirror to stand up comedian? Who is doing this meta-comedy that stands above stand-up comedians, and doing comedy on them.

You’ll see most of the comics are from urban centres; [they are] upper caste comics. Their sensibility towards caste dynamics and caste discrimination is almost negligible. They’re all caste agnostic. I’ve seen on multiple occasions, in urban centres, because of their caste ignorance, stand-up comics say such things that hurt my and probably several others’ sentiments too. But when my sentiments are hurt, I don’t take that comic to jail.

I don’t say that ‘he hurt my sentiments, charge him under Section 295A’. By the way, Pakistan’s blasphemy section too is the same 295A. The British left that for us. Are comedians pushing the envelope? They would have to do it in all directions. If you talk about only religion… first of all, I don’t believe that it is possible to mock any God. Everyone has a personal relationship with God. I don’t have it, I am an atheist and I have the right to be one.

It’s not possible to mock any God because that’s your personal relationship with God! I can never know it. It’s possible to make fun of human interaction with the idea of God. If that’s what is being made fun of, what is being referred to, it doesn’t mean God is being mocked. He’ll take care of his own self, he doesn’t need you. God is probably saying #NotInMyName. He’s saying I can take care of my own self.

It is true that this country has so many fault lines that… we see only two or four fault lines but if you look at it, the fault lines of caste are as deep as of gender. Those fault lines too should be talked about by the stand-up comedians. That envelope too should be pushed by stand-up comedians. Only then will I consider I’m not saying that I am an authority on this but only then will I say that comics are pushing the envelope for the cultural evolution of the society, of the collective conscience of society. It’s important to use this word.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: That’s a lovely thought, Sanjay. One last question that I would like to put to Agrima and Parvez. Parvez, I’d like to know from you that as a new satirist, as a new stand-up comic, do you feel that this atmosphere is not safe? Anyone can attack me, maybe someone gets up from the audience to attack me. Does the thought of physical threat or the threat of being jailed occur to you?

Parvez Hassan: Personally, I haven’t faced it during my live shows. Normally, what happens is that such people are those who watch videos on YouTube. The audience of comedy clubs usually has a sense of humour. Unless, like [those who attacked] Munawar, who specially bought a ticket to attack him.

But yes, while uploading the video, such thoughts occur to me. Some said don’t put this joke in, don’t put that joke in. But I didn’t listen to them. I put it anyway. The video didn’t get too popular. I wasn’t beaten up. Luckily. Perhaps if the video became popular, I would have felt afraid for the future. But, yes, I am afraid while uploading videos on YouTube; what to put, what to not.

We see that comedians in the West are very evolved. They can talk about religion freely, even politics. People don’t take offence easily or at least, they don’t come to attack you. With us, like you said in the beginning, even Muslims are too sensitive. My tragedy was different. I was assuming that Muslims will be ready to take those jokes, but the opposite happened. So instead of the West, we are becoming the Middle East. The tragedy is, we can’t joke on anyone now. We have to think a lot before cracking jokes.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Taj Mahal too has a religion today. Taj Mahal too has become Muslim, where saffron flags have to be planted on it to show ownership. Agrima, we live in such a conservative society that for a woman, her life is limited to the kitchen and giving birth to children. In such times, there is a whole new wave of women who are talking very openly about sexuality, sexual relations, extramarital relations, pre-marital relations.

I was observing that there is a wave of women who make jokes about orgasms and sexual needs. Do you think these women are breaking the barricades?

Agrima Joshua: I like how I get the orgasm question. But what you are saying Arfa, that women are pushing the envelope…that despite the gender bias, they are talking about what they want to…for years, out of my fear and I’d like to talk about my personal experience for many years, I did not put my video on YouTube. Because I feared that many male comedians and male audience would come and say to me that ‘why does this girl always talks about sex, relationships and indecent things to become popular?’.

So, the first video that I put instead was called ‘UP is the Texas of India’. Today that video is banned. That entire video was about my background and a small part of it was political, on the Uttar Pradesh government. Fights have broken out over that video too. The Habitat was vandalised because of that video.

I have received rape threats. If you are a woman, no matter what you say, you will have to face the music. Whatever you may want to talk about; whatever personal experiences you want to talk about, whenever a woman is talking… you may watch clips of all stand-up comedians, it’s not as if the male comedians are talking about all things holy and pious. They use profane words. It’s not necessary to use profane words in punch lines but in order to express themselves, they’ve explored all kinds of topics. There’s a very popular male comedian, one of his videos is called ‘Sex and Old People’.

Sanjay Rajoura: Who is it? Give us names

Agrima Joshua: Hah!…He’s talking about how the elderly keep lecturing youngsters against sex. A male comedian is talking about all this. If a female comedian talks about the same thing, immediately four-five boys on YouTube will…there’s a whole genre of comedy on YouTube where 20-22 year old boys say ‘all women do on YouTube is crack jokes on indecent things’. We’re even told that it’s not funny!

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: Freedom of expression…it is said that the more you exercise your freedom and rights, the more they are granted to you, the more they progress. All four of us on this panel have perhaps been victims of that majoritarianism, of that same mentality that relentlessly attacks the idea of India. We all hope that Munawar Faruqui is granted bail very soon and returns back to stand-up comedy.

This article is translated by Zobia Salam.