Updated: Jan 24
Mumbai: There is no evidence, video or otherwise, and police admitted to Article 14 that no jokes were made about Hinduism. Yet the police and courts have supported allegations made by Hindu vigilantes, and a Muslim standup comic and five friends and associates—Hindu, Muslim and Christian—have been denied bail and imprisoned for nearly two weeks.
Thirteen days after the Indore police in Madhya Pradesh arrested stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui and four others midway through a performance for “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks about Hindu gods, superintendent of police Vijay Khatri told Article 14 that Faruqui, 30, made no such jokes.
The police had “oral evidence”—a complainant’s claim that he overheard rehearsal jokes—that Fariqui was “going to”, said Khatri, who praised the vigilantes for being “active and alert”.
The only evidence, based on which Faruqui and the others have been imprisoned and bail rejected, is the statement of a Hindu vigilante who has provided no evidence to back his claim and lied to Article 14 that he had.
Khatri said "it didn’t really matter" if Faruqui had not made the comments that were the basis for the arrests.
“There was hungama (ruckus) at the venue even before Faruqui could perform,” said Khatri. “But, we were told (by the complainants) that when they (comics) were rehearsing before the show, they were cracking jokes about Ram, Shivji.”
This, Khatri said, indicated intent, that they were going to joke about Hindu gods.
No Crime, 5 Offences
On 1 January, Faruqui was slated to perform at Indore's Monroe Café when a mob led by Aklavya Singh Gaur, convenor of the Hind Rakshak Sangathan (Hindu Protection Union) entered the café and demanded the performance halted.
As Article 14 reported on 7 January, Gaur, son of an Indore Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA, Malini Gaur, had alleged that Faruqui had “poked fun” at Hindu gods and goddesses in his act.
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That evening, Faruqui along with four others—local comic Prakhar Vyas, Nalin Yadav, Pratik Vyas and Edwin Anthony—were arrested by the Indore Police on Gaur’s complaint.
A day later, Faruqui’s friend, Sadakat Khan, who was not even named as an accused in the First Information Report (FIR), was arrested by the Indore police on charges of being a co-organiser of the event. Even as Khan was being taken into custody, he was verbally abused and attacked by an unidentified person, as the police watched.
All six were charged under sections 295-A, 298, 269, 188 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, for "deliberately intending to outrage religious feelings," for “uttering words etc with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings,” “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life” (in view of the pandemic), for “disobedience to order” and for “acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.” If convicted, they could face up to four years in prison.
Since then, the six men have remained in judicial custody, with their bail applications rejected, twice in Faruqui and Yadav’s case.
Police Officer Defends, Praises Vigilantes
Khatri said proving Faruqui's “intent” was helped by Faruqui’s April 2020 video, where he joked about a popular Hindi song, Mere Piya Ghar Aaya, Oh Ram Ji.
In the now-deleted video, Faruqui mocked the song and the irony behind the words, pointing to Ram’s own 14-year-long exile. The video led to FIRs against Faruqui and hashtags trended on social media demanded his arrest.
“Apart from the rehearsals, there were his old videos too,” said Khatri. “They were going to do it, anyway. All of their jokes were about Hindu gods and goddesses. It isn’t as if they would have not cracked these jokes if there was no hungama."
Audience eyewitnesses that Article 14 spoke to said Faruqui had not said anything relating to religion in his act, abruptly curtailed after police reached the venue.
However, Gaur had insisted that Faruqui had made "derogatory remarks" and that he had submitted videos as “proof.”
On 13 January, Khatri denied the police had any such video proof against Faruqui, but he defended Faruqui’s arrest.
“It is wrong to say that he should be released because he didn’t crack any jokes. Nor did the others, because as soon as the first comic tried to do it, there was commotion,” Khatri said, referring to the opening act by Prakhar Vyas, a local comic, who he alleged had cracked jokes about the Hindu god Ganesh.
“Aap log toh yeh karne hi aaye the. Aap planning kar ke aaye the. (This is exactly what you had come to do here. You had planned to do this),” said Khatri, referring to Faruqui and his colleagues.
Calling the mob of Hindu vigilantes led by Gaur “active and alert,” Khatri defended their act of demanding that the performance be halted.
“When you four are going to do something together and the first act itself kicks up a controversy, why should the other three (acts) be allowed to continue?” said Khatri.
Popular comedians like Vir Das, Rohan Joshi and comic-writer Varun Grover have criticised Faruqui’s arrest and former union minister and Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor has said that the arrest “shames us all.”
Khatri dismissed such criticism and said it was only “because Faruqui is Muslim.”
“No one is speaking about the other three, but since there is one Muslim, people are criticising these arrests,” said Khatri. “If he is released, and the other three are kept in prison, no one would have said anything.”
No Evidence, But No Bail
Despite Khatri’s admissions about the thin to non-existent evidence linking the accused to the crime, all the six continue to be in judicial custody. On 13 January, judicial custody was extended by two more weeks.
A representative of Faruqui’s legal team said a bail application filed by him and Yadav is listed for hearing at the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court on 15 January.
On 6 January, Faruqui’s bail plea in an Indore sessions court was rejected after the court said that it could lead to an “law and order situation”. Opposing their bail applications, the prosecution had said that it could send a wrong message, “leading to protests from a specific community”.
The prosecution linked, with no evidence, Faruqui’s act on 1 January to communal violence in Ujjain and Indore on 25 December and 29 December, telling the court that the police needed to “investigate” whether the show’s timing was “pre-planned” to coincide with the violence.
Khatri told Article 14 that the police had dropped that line of investigation. “I would not connect the performance to the violence,” he said. “There is no need to connect the two, they are both separate issues.”
Bail Rejected Because It Could Threaten Law And Order
On 11 January, Additional District and Sessions court judge, Yatindra Kumar Guru, who had denied Faruqui’s bail a week ago, rejected the bail application of Faruqui’s friend Khan, arrested a day later, on similar grounds—that it could cause a “law and order situation”.
“Eyewitnesses have told police that Khan was involved in the event," Guru said in his order. "He has been accused of being party to an act meant to provoke Hindu sentiments, to make indecent remarks against Hindu Gods and Goddesses.”
Gayatri Singh, a senior counsel at the Bombay High Court and co-founder of the Human Rights Law Network, a collective of lawyers and activists, said that the judge had gone “beyond the framework of law”.
Singh said the FIR did not contain any specific remarks that Faruqui or others had allegedly made against Hindu religious sentiment. “The police should have stated out the exact words used by the accused, what the intention was and the harm or injury caused by the words,” said Singh.
The FIR only says that “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks were made against Hindu gods, goddesses and India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, linking him to the 2002 Godhra riots.
“When the police itself is saying that there is no evidence, the judge could not have gone into whether it could create a law and order situation,” said Singh.
Singh said bail should have been granted to all the accused. “Bail as a right is a rule and not an exception,” she said. “You cannot decide arbitrarily whether you want to grant it or not. It is only in exceptional circumstances that bail can be refused.”
As their bail applications come up for hearing on 15 January, Faruqui and his co-accused will hope that the judge agrees.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)