A coffin needs many nails. Call it macabre, but a coffin appears to be an apt metaphor because in India today, only the dead don’t get offended.
With the arrest of stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui by the Indore police, have we driven the last nail in the coffin? We are told that his “jokes” hurt the religious sentiments of some people who took objection to Faruqui making fun of Hindu gods. In his defence, Faruqui states that he had many jokes on Islam too. What a sad place to be for a stand-up comic, to be answering to whatabouteries.
Every joke has a back story and a context, which are perhaps more important than the punchline. A comic goes on stage, often exposing her own life stories to transform an anecdote into a joke. She connects many contemporary incidents, people, images, institutions or practices and maps a social and cultural pattern. Religion is one of them, and an important one at that, because it’s an integral and unquestioned part of the life of the majority of people in the audience. Take a comic who uses a wheelchair, wants to highlight the difficulties faced by her because most places are not accessible, and she happens to mention how Hindu mythology portrayed disabled figures negatively as the punchline to drive home the point and highlight society’s apathy. Now, it would be ridiculous to think that she is making fun of Hindu mythology. In this context, if anything should make people angry it’s the lack of wheel-chair friendly neighbourhoods. The comic here is highlighting a very real problem faced by many. To reduce it to hurting religious sentiments is missing the point by light years.
Stand-up comedy is about human beings and their behaviour and practices and never about gods and goddesses. India has had a rich tradition of using mythology, religion and religious figures as part of storytelling. There are numerous examples. One being from the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) by iconic director Kundan Shah. The epic Mahabharata sequence is etched into our memory as one of the funniest ever. It’s hard to imagine that just 40 years ago, the legendary Om Puri said in that sequence, “Oye tu kaise Draupadi ko akele le jayega, hum sab shareholder hain.” Is it possible to say that today in comedy without consequences? I am afraid not. Again, we all know that the sequence was not about religion, religious figures or mythology. It was about human corruption and depravity. Like all good jokes, it had a context and a larger point.
In 40 years, we have gone from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro to “Bolne bhi mat do yaaro”. You are free to conclude, whether this is a slide or a climb.
Section 295(A) is often invoked against someone who is accused of hurting religious sentiments. It is an archaic law and was one of the parting gifts of the British. Such an antiquated law has no place in a free, modern society. It’s interesting to note that 295(A) of undivided India is the precursor to Pakistan’s 295(C) — the blasphemy law which carries the death penalty.
Unabashed state support to the blasphemy law in Pakistan has resulted in unfair and unjust persecution, including mob lynchings of minorities and even the murders of political figures, most notably Salman Taseer, who opposed the law and was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. There is also the horrific story of the lynching of Mashal Khan, a student from Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He was lynched by a mob in his university on a mere rumour of blasphemy. Such laws empower the mob and give it a twisted moral legitimacy to commit murder. Once a mob is empowered, no one is safe. It leads to collective social paranoia. A mob is bloodthirsty by nature, and, after a point, becomes community-agnostic, even going after its own, as is evident from the murders of Taseer and Khan. Even some of the lawyers defending a blasphemy accused were murdered.
The writing on the wall is as clear as it gets. Act now, India, before it’s too late.
The Indore incident where Munawar Faruqui was first apprehended by a group of men and then handed over to the police should worry us all. In a civilised society where rule of law is the order of the day, such brazen acts have no place. If you don’t like it, don’t go for it. If your religious sentiments are hurt, you have the right to file a complaint with police. Any further action is for the police to decide on and take. Citizens cannot be a self-proclaimed extension of the police, acting as vigilantes and dragging people to the police station.
I don’t know Faruqui personally and was not exposed to his craft until the Indore episode. After the incident though, my online feed is full of his videos. After watching a few of them, I can safely say that here is a bright young man, who is extremely comfortable laughing at himself and his faith too. Some of his jokes on Muslims are remarkably intelligent. From the videos, I could see that when he was on stage, he was in an extremely happy space. The audience loved him. He spoke about my India, his India, our collective shared India. Some of them funny, some not so. Do people have a right to take him off stage and hand him over to the cops? Turns out they do, in the name of god.
This surely must be one of god’s #NotInMyName moment. Whether such acts are the final nail in the coffin of democracy, shall be known soon enough. For now, though, the joke has been incarcerated in India.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 8, 2021 under the title ‘Bolne bhi mat do yaaro’. The writer is a satirist.