In January 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted from his official handle of PMO. "I think we need more satire and humour. Humour brings happiness in our lives. Humour is the best healer," the Prime Minister said.
4 years down the line, the Prime Minister's own party men, along with other right-wing groups, have made incessant attempts to criminalize humour.
Never did any words ring true about the present state of India than what stand-up comic Vir Das had said in his controversial 'Two Indias' video: "I come from an India where we laugh so loudly in the comfort of our homes that you can hear us from the walls and yet I come from an India where we break down the walls of a comedy club because you can hear laughter inside."
The struggle of being Munawar Faruqui
Stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui has experienced the latter India for quite a few times now. Faruqui was arrested on 1 January, in the central Indian city of Indore just as one of his shows ended. The comic was accused of "insulting" Hindu religious sentiments in jokes that he had allegedly prepared, although they did not appear in his set that night. Even police later said they had no evidence that the comic had insulted Hindu gods - and the charge was based on the complainant overhearing "some jokes" the comic had been preparing for the show. The complainant was Eklavya Gaud, the son of a politician from India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also in power in Madhya Pradesh state, where the arrest happened. However, that did not protect the Muslim comedian from spending 35 days in jail before he was granted bail.
Though the hardships of Munawar Faruqui did not end there. Last month, in an emotional social media post, Faruqui indicated that he may not do any more comedy shows, after at least 12 of his shows were cancelled in the last two months due to threats from right-wing groups. In most of these cases, the police asked the organisers to call the shows off citing possible law and order problems, after complaints filed by right-wing groups.
"Putting me in jail for the joke I never did to cancelling my shows, which has nothing problematic in it. This is unfair. This show has gained so much love from people in India irrespective of their religion. This is unfair. We do have censor certificate of the show and it's clearly nothing problematic in the show. We called off 12 shows in the last two months because of threats to venue and audience," the comedian said in the long Instagram post.
Mr Faruqui said, "Nafrat jeet gayi, artist haar gaya (hate has won, artist has lost). I'm done, goodbye. Injustice."
It is also important to highlight that except his Mumbai and Raipur shows which were canceled owing to the threat from right-wing groups, all of the other canceled shows were scheduled to take place in BJP-ruled states in cities like Bengaluru, Gurugram, Surat, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Goa. Many also pointed out that the police force, instead of providing protection to the show venues in the wake of threats, chose to suggest organisers to call them off.
Congress comes in support
After Faruqui's emotional outburst, many social media users from different parts of the country came in support of the comic and asked him to plan shows in their cities. One of them was All India Professional Congress (AIPC) President of Maharashtra chapter Mathew Antony. After Faruqui's announcement about quitting stand-up comedy, Antony had posted on social media: "We will host Munawar Faruqui in Mumbai, unless and until it is not expressely denied by law."
Delivering on the promise, the AIPC facilitated a show in Mumbai on Saturday where Faruqui performed. This was his first event after 16 cancellations in several cities because of threats from Hindutva outfits. On Sunday, the Congress in a statement said that Faruqui's show was completed without any disturbances.
"Artists should have creative freedom as long as they abide by the constitution and respect all faiths," the All India Professionals' Congress said in a tweet on Sunday. "We may disagree with someone's content but using force to impose our opinion on others is unconstitutional."
After Faruqui's show at the city's YB Chavan Centre, members of AIPC posted pictures from the event on social media, sending a strong message to the right-wing groups which threatened the comedian.
Allegiance to opposition
For a comedian like Faruqui, who does political jokes mostly against the ruling dispensation at the centre, it is important that he does not come across as a supporter of any other political parties. Batting for a particular political party, or group of parties, will only raise questions over his intent.
Moreover, after his Mumbai show facilitated by AIPC, Faruqui is set to perform in Kolkata and Pune in January. The comedian took to Twitter on Saturday evening and shared a link to book tickets for his two-hour comedy act "Dhandho", to be held on January 16. In Pune, the show will be held on January 7. Both Maharashtra and West Bengal happen to be the states ruled by non-BJP parties, which are part of opposition. Many political leaders from different opposition-ruled states have invited Faruqui to perform, and it is likely that the comic will choose venues for his shows in these states considering the risk of them getting canceled in BJP-ruled states.
However, this will only enhance the risk of Faruqui being seen or projected as a political pawn by the right-wing party and its supporters. Though the Hindi film industry is already divided on the lines of pro and anti-BJP views, the stand-up industry till now was not polarized to that extent. Earlier, very few of the comedians were doing anti-establishment jokes, while some were not doing political jokes at all. There was no visible divide along the political lines in stand up scene. However, with Munawar faruqui attending the meeting held by Mamata Banerjee with civil society in Mumbai, and then performing at a show facilitated by the AIPC, it is perhaps the first instance of the modern stand-up comics getting close to any political parties. In an earlier instance, stand-up comic Kunal Kamra had campaigned for Kanhaiya Kumar in Bihar's Begusarai during 2019 general elections.
The court jester
It is often said that modern stand-up comics are an evolved version of the ancient court jesters. A jester was a learned man who presented his point of view in a humorous fashion. Kings in ancient times appointed court jesters because of their sense of wit, wisdom and humour. The jesters were appointed in courts as the kingdom's moral watchdogs and guardians. The jibes of court jesters used to drive home the point in a witty manner and kings never took umbrage at their criticisms and taunts. Two of the finest examples of it in Indian context are Birbal and Tenali Raman. While Birbal would often pull the leg of Emperor Akbar in the court and draw his attention to wrong decisions and transgressions, through his well-timed banters, Tenali Raman would often criticise the king Krishnadevaraya in the court, albeit in a veiled fashion and a bantering style.
Be it Munawar Faruqui, Kunal Kamra, or Vir Das, their comedy could be an example of what a modern day jester should do. Since we have come a long way ahead from the times when monarchies existed, and the King has now been replaced by a democratically elected leader, it becomes more pertinent that people like Faruqui and Kamra speak truth to power, especially when the contemporary media has stopped doing its job.
On the other hand, unlike monarchies, democracies have power to change the leader and party in power. This, in my opinion, would be the ultimate test for the current lot of comedians speaking against the government. Let's assume that a non-BJP government comes to power in 2024. Would comedians, who have come closer to the current opposition parties, be able to do jokes on them or ask questions to them?
Mathew Antony, shedding light on the similar concerns of political patronage over the show facilitated by the AIPC for Faruqui, wrote on Facebook: "Then came the question of political patronage and ownership of the event , which was of concern for Munawar as well . It was important that as an individual the citizen should not be forced to take a political patronage or identity , when we are supporting an otherwise just and normal right of the individual bestowed upon him by the constitution , we as a political organization should not use his exploitable situation to our advantage , as it is against the values of freedom of an individual and hence we decided , we will not take ownership of the event nor will ask the performer to confirm his patronage to us in any form of force or choice , as that will conflict against the the value of freedom as enshrined in the constitution."
To sum it up, stand-up comics are modern day court jesters. Dividing them along the political lines will only hurt the democracy. Faruqui, or any other comedian for that matter, should be allowed to perform in any corner of the country, no matter which political party rules there. Banning them is equivalent to shunting a court jester. With jester being shunted, the king will run amok.