The problem was never the joke. In fact, it never really is. It is not the joke itself – the content of it, the invocations, the delivery, the manoeuvring of historicity – touching religions and related deities that offend. It is the person offending. His marginality and the attempt to own it, his socio-economic privileges, his perceived ability to sway rationality. As we continue to live in BJP’s India the criteria list has become shorter. His existence is enough.
Munawar Faruqui is a comedian in jail. He has spent close to twenty days in jail for a joke he never cracked. On the insistence of a BJP MLA’s son – who also happens to be the chief of Hind Rakshak Sanghatan and had overheard allegedly jokes being cracked about Hindu deities and Amit Shah – Faruqui was arrested by the Indore police. There is no video or visual evidence of the crime committed. Audience testimonies have overwhelmingly shown that no derogatory joke was made. They say that Faruqui had only just taken centre stage when he was apprehended and even then, had apologised if anyone had been hurt for any possible thing he may have said or done.
A thread of #MunawarFaruqui ‘s mounting legal troubles: Faruqui might get an urgent bail hearing in Indore today but that doesn’t really help. He is all set to be re-arrested by the UP Police.
— Kunal Purohit (@kunalpurohit) January 18, 2021
Two bail requests have already been rejected by the competent court. UP Police is now seeking Faruqui’s custody. When asked about the fact that there had been zero credible evidence against the accused and yet he had been arrested, the Indore SP reportedly said, “It does not matter.”
#UpdateMunawarFaruqui: UP to take custody of Comedian Faruqui likely by Tuesday in connection with a case filed in #Prayagraj in May 2020 for insulting Hindu deities & #Amit Shah. UP Court issued 'production warrant' to Indore Central Jail, where he has been kept.@newsclickin pic.twitter.com/cPLe0ABSs0
— Kashif Kakvi (@KashifKakvi) January 17, 2021
It’s true. It does not matter, the joke. The goons in the Comedy Club that fateful day had arrived there not with the intention to laugh and hear jokes but to heckle. And to their blessed advantage, a Muslim man had just taken centre stage.
Because it is not as though comedians have completely abandoned their liberty to make jokes about religion.
Even in this hyper-religious, nationalistic, politically polarised climate, there are still the Kunal Kamras and Vir Das’ and Varun Grovers that are allowed – albeit pitiably – to exist. Their rightful liberties become an exercise of democracy, and the State’s suppression of those: a suppression of dissent.
But remember, these are attacks on dissent. Not on personhood. These men are questioned because, for the ‘protectors’ of the Hindu dignity, they are not perfect representatives of the faith. They are foul-mouthed, authority questioning, English speaking and so on. They are questioned because they seemingly lower the mantle of Brahmanical patriarchy that they are called to uphold. Theirs is the crime of inconformity; of rejecting the perfect identities they belong to.
It is “How dare you make these jokes?”
But Faruqui conforms. He is exactly what they perceive minorities – Muslim men in particular – to be. Offensive, immoral, anarchists, the ‘Other’. Miscreants in a land that does not belong to them; incompatible with the larger demographic, invaders of ‘pure’ culture.
Impediments to the eventual Hindu Rashtra. As a result, they need to be constantly subdued, reminded their place, disenfranchised; their voices are part of a herd almost always either misrepresented or dismissed.
It is “How dare you make these jokes?”
Yes, it might seem grim when the counter-argument is always that our Constitution itself does not allow you to ‘offend religious sentiments’ – which is surprisingly the only time these fundamentalist factions rely on Dr Ambedkar’s Constitution – but these criteria for offence are kept intentionally abstract, so as to delay the process of the actual indictment. Because surprise, surprise, morality is abstract. Interpretation of a joke is abstract. There are people who might be so enraged by a cartoon of a prophet that they justify murder. And then there are people whose faith stands unrattled by it.
And who the hell decides who deserves jail time for something like this?
So why not, for now, spare the discourse of why freedom of expression is necessary and why artists need independence for their art and so on. Yes, the conversation is important but we’re talking about something deeper here: identity.
Munawar Faruqui’s identity is the fault here.
His exercise of democracy, his taking up of the spotlight, his grabbing of the microphone and stage; the revolting and at the same time, owning of his marginalisation is the crime. It is the intersectionality of his inequalities that are the reason for his never-ending jail ordeal. And those who are at the top celebrate this.
So if you, in your privilege, still are apolitical. If you still believe ‘these things happen’. If you believe comedians must not make offensive jokes. This is for you. It is our identities that are politicised.
We are heckled for our thoughts, persecuted for our beliefs; our bodies are part of political trials and while that continues, our voices are unimaginably censored. This is not a fair society, let alone a democratic one.
Democracy is dying, and it is certain, the joke seems more real than ever.