Arrest of Munawar Faruqui: Can democracy take a joke?

The people who are silent over the arrest of Munawar Faruqui should remember that ‘if you do not allow a joke in a democracy, then democracy will turn into a joke.’

By Md Asif Khan

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“We surely need more humour in public life,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on 17 March 2017. It’s not clear whether Modi was serious or this tweet was meant to be a joke. If you observe the current situation in India, one will realize that showing your sense of humour in public can be harmful to your life.

Recently, a Muslim comedian named Munawar Faruqui was arrested for thinking a joke. Yes, you read it right – for thinking a joke. The police did not have any evidence against him. SP of Indore police justified Faruqui’s arrest by saying that he was going to crack a joke against Hindu Gods. Faruqui was performing in Indore. While performing, his program was interrupted by BJP supporters and later on, an FIR was lodged against him and his colleagues. He has been languishing in jail since 1 January for a joke he never cracked.

This is not the first time when someone is being targeted in India because of the expression of humour. The Narendra Modi regime and his supporters keep targeting artists, comedians etc. In July 2017, an FIR was registered against comedian Tanmay Bhatt for sharing a meme of Narendra Modi. In July 2018, comedian Kunal Kamra’s show was cancelled in Gujarat because some people threatened to disrupt the show. In December 2020, Supreme Court of India decided to proceed with the criminal contempt of court case against stand-up comedians Kunal Kamra and cartoonist Rachita Taneja for their Tweets criticizing the top court.

The fact is that people like Kunal Kamra have Hindu privilege backing them but Munawar Faruqui’s Muslim name is enough to put him behind the bars. There are many cases in India where civilians were arrested for criticizing PM Modi or BJP leaders on social media.

Recently, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, who is an ally of BJP, has made anti-govt social media posts a cybercrime. If anyone will criticize govt through social media and if govt finds it “offensive”, the social media user will be arrested for committing cybercrime.

Although Hindu Nationalists or Modi supporters openly give hate speech on media or social media, they enjoy total impunity because of their privilege. Recently, a Hindu leader Swami Anand Swaroop delivered hate speech against Muslims and Christians but no action was taken against him till now.

Presently, a web series Tandav is the new target of Hindu right. The show is accused of being anti-Hindu. Muslim actors and Muslim director of this series have become targets and an FIR has been registered against the maker of the show.

India is a Hindu Majoritarian country now. Indian govt and systems work according to the “sentiments” of the majority society. Earlier, mobs of extremists used to lynch Muslims on the streets but now they are using legal apparatus to target Muslims and critics of govt. Munawar Faruqui’s case is a live example before us. He has been punished by the Hindu majoritarian government because of his Muslim identity. His incarceration will set a precedent in the country. In future, if someone mocks any powerful politician or charlatan, then his followers can file a case against the particular comic or cartoonist, and police will arrest him for hurting sentiments of the majority community.

In a civilized democracy, everyone has the right to express their thoughts through humour or art, but in Indian democracy, people do not seem to have a right to use their humour. Freedom of Expression is a majority privilege in India. While Hindutva leaders can deliver hate speeches without facing any legal consequences but a Muslim can’t even think a joke.

What is very unfortunate is that the arrest of a Muslim comedian did not draw enough attention in international media, neither he received enough support inside India. A country of 1.3 billion people has become afraid of humour. The people who are silent over the arrest of Munawar Faruqui should remember that ‘if you do not allow a joke in a democracy, then democracy will turn into a joke.’


Md Asif Khan is a social activist. He tweets at @imMAK02