Updated: November 30, 2021 8:24:27 am
Bengaluru Police Commissioner Kamal Pant must answer: Why did the police force of one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities, where the future is daily reimagined and innovated on, disgrace itself by submitting to and enforcing a heckler’s veto? How else does one describe the act of the Bengaluru police writing to the organisers of a ticketed comedy show by Munawar Faruqui and “suggesting” that they cancel it because “organisations opposed to” Faruqui’s comedy “could create chaos …and lead to law and order problems”? Faced with threats from right-wing organisations, Faruqui and the show’s organisers found they could not depend on what is taken for granted in functional democracies — that the state would defend their right to stage a show against a mob. Instead, the police were found upholding the right to be offended of those who have repeatedly used the threat of violence to force a majoritarian consensus.
The police is, indeed, responsible for keeping peace but that does not empower it to impose a prior restraint on an act of speech. The Supreme Court has several times spoken against the use of such pre-censorship — most recently, in a case last year involving a provocative show by Sudarshan TV. In the 1989 S Rangarajan case, when a Tamil film was sought to be denied clearance on the grounds that it would lead to violent protests, the SC had asked: “What good is the protection of freedom of expression if the state does not take care to protect it? …it cannot be suppressed on account of threats of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would be tantamount to …a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” Unfortunately, the hounding of Munawar Faruqui, which began last year in Indore over a joke he might not have even cracked, illustrates precisely a surrender to this politics of “blackmail and intimidation”. An organised campaign of harassment has brought the young comic to the brink of quitting his career.
In the last several months, Faruqui’s shows have been cancelled in several cities, from Mumbai to Raipur to Surat, after threats of violence by Hindu right-wing organisations. The political class, irrespective of the party in office, has silently allowed this campaign to grow louder, even while making lofty declamations on Constitution Day. The Constitution promises Faruqui — and all citizens — the freedom of speech and liberty. The state and its police must go back to its job of defending those rights.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 30, 2021 under the title ‘Tragedy of errors’.