Munawar Faruqui was arrested mid-way through his stand-up act in Indore. Six days later, he’s still in custody, two courts have rejected bail and he faces multiple investigations and a four-year prison term if held guilty. But no one can say what his crime is.
Mumbai: Ever since April 2020, after a hashtag trended calling for his arrest over a joke, Munawar Faruqui was “shaken”, his friends said, and had a foreboding that something might happen.
On 1 January 2021, minutes after midnight, Faruqui, 30, a stand-up comic did what he always did: he wished his followers on Twitter but jokingly reminded them that trouble was never dictated by the change of a calendar.
A few hours later, his words turned prophetic, and trouble came for him.
On the evening of 1 January, Faruqui and four others, including local event organisers and comedians, were arrested from an Indore café, mid-way through a performance, after a mob from a Hindu organisation disrupted the show, alleging he had made “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks against Hindu gods and goddesses and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Based on a complaint from Aklavya Gaur, the convenor of an organisation called the Hind Rakshak Sangathan, the police filed a first information report (FIR) under sections 295-A, 298, 269, 188 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 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”. In his complaint, Gaur also said that “objectionable things like a condom” were presented by another comedian who performed before Faruqui, in front of “an audience that included under-age members.”
The next day, Faruqui’s friend, Sadakat Khan, not named as an accused in the FIR, was also arrested by the Indore police. Faruqui’s friends told Article 14 on the condition of anonymity that Khan, a resident of Mumbai, had no link to the event and was only attending it as he was in the city visiting grandparents. Even as he was being arrested, Khan was beaten and abused by an yet-to-be identified person outside the court in full view of police escorting him.
Five days later, by 6 January, Faruqui’s bail applications had been rejected twice, with the court declaring that his release could lead to a “law and order situation”.
He faces charges that can lead to a prison time of up to four years, and the police are now investigating whether his comments were “pre-planned” to coincide with recent communal clashes in Ujjain and Indore, as per the sessions court rejecting his bail application, accessed by Article 14.
It is unclear what crime Faruqui committed.
Show Disrupted Even Before He Started
Eyewitnesses said that his show was disrupted even before he could perform; the FIR—a copy of which is with Article 14—does not contain any specific remarks made by Faruqui, alleges “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks were made at the show and the video submitted as evidence refers to a show that preceded his.
Other videos from the event, collated by this reporter from eyewitnesses, reveal that the complainant, Gaur, had even agreed to let Faruqui perform, after an assurance from the comic that he would not hurt religious sentiments.
A few minutes later, Gaur walked out, they said, and called the police to arrest the comic.
According to Gaur son of the city’s former mayor and city Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Malini Gaur, Faruqui had “insulted” Hindu religious sentiments.
A few hours later, Gaur, speaking to reporters outside the police station, called Faruqui a “serial offender” and added that he was a witness to how “Hindu gods were being mocked at, how Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s name was dragged into the Godhra riots”.
Gaur said Faruqui “keeps making such indecent remarks about Hindu gods and goddesses'' without any “regrets or shame.” In the FIR, Gaur said that organising such a show was “conspiracy” to hurt “Hindu sentiments and insult customs, traditions”.
Eyewitnesses who were in the audience that evening told Article 14 that Gaur disrupted the show even before Faruqui could start his set.
“In fact, Gaur entered the café at the very moment that Faruqui was welcomed on the stage.” said Akash Chheda (name changed), a 20-year-old resident of Indore who was in the audience. “Gaur headed straight to the stage and asked for the show to be called off.”
After nearly 10 minutes on stage, with Faruqui trying to convince Gaur to let him perform, Gaur agreed to let the show continue “but only if you promise that you will not crack any indecent jokes about Hindu gods and goddesses”. Videos of the interaction are now widely available on the internet.
“So, we thought that the row was settled and that show would go on, because Gaur had sat down in the audience,” said Chheda. But about five to seven minutes into Faruqui’s performance, Gaur left.
Eyewitnesses Dispute Gaur’s Allegations
Speaking to Article 14, Gaur agreed with Chheda’s account.
“So, when we gave him a chance to perform his act, he started making the same jokes that he had earlier made, poking fun at Hindu gods and goddesses,” said Gaur. “How could we take this lying down?”
Chedda and 25-year-old Anaisha D (name changed), two eyewitnesses Article 14 contacted, disagreed with Gaur.
“Faruqui had not said anything religious till then,” said Chheda, “In fact, he was joking about what it is to be a part of a Muslim wedding, based on a friend’s wedding he had been to in Delhi.”
Which is why, eyewitnesses said, that even Gaur’s allegation—that he had submitted video proof of Faruqui’s “indecent jokes”—is doubtful.
Inspector of Tukaganj police station Kamlesh Sharma told the Indian Express that they had “no evidence of Faruqui insulting Hindu deities or Union Home Minister Amit Shah”, adding that the videos submitted by Gaur featured another comedian who performed before Faruqui.
Anshumaan Shrivastava, Faruqui’s lawyer, said that there were “problems” even in the police FIR.
“In the FIR, the police need to mention the specific words that were spoken that hurt the sentiments of people,” said Shrivastava. “In this case, there is nothing on record in the FIR.”
As the cloud of doubt over the allegations grows, so do Faruqui’s legal troubles.
On 6 January, an Indore sessions court dismissed the bail applications of Faruqui and another accused, Nalin Yadav. It was the second court to do so.
During his bail hearing, the Indore police said that they planned to check the calls records of all of the accused and probe their movements. The police said that releasing Faruqui would send a wrong message, “leading to protests from people from a specific community,” and would lead to a “law and order situation,” as per the order rejecting Faruqui’s bail, accessed by Article 14. The prosecution also said that it was “fully possible” that Faruqui would abscond, if released on bail.
Shrivastava said he would petition the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court on 7 January, but the bail applications were likely to be heard “only three to four days later”.
Article 14 called and messaged Indore Senior Superintendent of Police Harinarayan Chari Mishra for comment. Despite several attempts, he did not respond.
An Indian Success Story
Faruqui’s imprisonment clouds his future. He is a recent entrant into the world of stand-up comedy.
Within two years of entering the industry, Faruqui gained attention and a following of 166,000 followers on Instagram and over half a million on YouTube.
Success did not come easy for a young man who came to Mumbai from Junagadh in Gujarat in 2007 at 15, after losing his mother and having a father crippled by a paralytic stroke.
Friends in Mumbai said that so desperate was the comic to send money back home to his father and three sisters that he did every job that came his way—the first one selling utensils in Mumbai’s Null bazar, earning Rs 60 for a 13-hour long shift.
“We friends would often joke about how there is no business that Munna (Faruqui) did not know about because he had worked everywhere,” said his Mumbai-based friend and fellow comic, Saad Shaikh.
Faruqui wanted to take up every opportunity that came his way and make it count.
Struggling through early life, Faruqui borrowed money to learn graphic design, thinking of it as his way out of poverty. He was only partially right.
“They employed him, but as a peon,” said Shaikh. Till one day, when one of the designers in the office did not report to work, Faruqui asked if he could step in. “They liked his work so much that they made him a designer,” said Shaikh.
His own life was constantly revealed in his acts, which often revolved around his Muslim identity. He poked fun at Muslim customs and way of life.
On 1 January, after Faruqui convinced Gaur to sit through his show and point to any objections he might have, Faruqui took to the stage.
Referring to the activists led by Gaur, Faruqui joked that the last time he saw so many people together was at the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz, the Sunni Muslim congregation in Delhi in early March that the Modi government controversially and wrongly blamed for the spread of the coronavirus in India.
“Lampooning people from their own communities is fairly common in non-Muslim societies, but is very rare among the Muslim community,” said Hussain Haidry, a spoken word poet, writer and lyricist. “That is why his comedy is significant,”
Faruqui also brought his life experiences as a Muslim in shows—for instance, he talked about living through the 2002 Gujarat riots in Junagadh. In the viral video clip, when Gaur objected to Faruqui’s earlier jokes about the riots, the comedian placed a hand on Gaur’s shoulder and said, “Sir, my house was burnt down during the riots.”
The Dangers of Joking About Politics In New India
Faruqui’s stand-up comedy is political—“If Sardar Patel was alive, we would have had unity as well, not just the statue”—and often bipartisan, taking potshots at former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress.
From speaking up against the manner in which the Uttar Pradesh police authorities handled the Hathras gangrape in September 2020 to criticising the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, Faruqui’s act often reflected current news.
In one video posted on his Instagram account in November 2019, he talked about how he went to a bookstore and asked for a long, fictional book for his travel, to which the shopkeeper handed him the chargesheet against Umar Khalid, the human rights activist arrested in connection with the Delhi riots.
For Haidry, Faruqui is a “self-made” comic. "Faruqui actively spoke about politics as well as about being a Muslim and that helped him create a niche for himself," he said. "This helped him gain popularity very organically."
Faruqui first encountered trouble when he joked about a popular Hindi song, Mera Piya Ghar Aaya, Oh Ram Ji. In his act, Faruqui mocked the song and the irony behind the words, pointing to Ram’s own 14-year-long exile.
His social media accounts were filled with hateful messages and threats to his family. “Trolls even threatened to rape his sisters and mother, who was long dead,” said another Mumbai-based comic and friend of Faruqui. “It left him shaken.”
As things quietened down, his popularity grew. Since April, he has posted 11 videos on his YouTube, garnering more than 8.5 million views and drawing a packed crowd to the Indore cafe on 1 January.
No One Should Be Offended By These Jokes: BJP Supporter
Anaisha, the 25-year-old Indore resident previously quoted, said that she had followed Faruqui’s career for its political content.
“I liked the fact that his sets included political discussions,” she said. “It makes you question your beliefs, which is crucial for the development of a person.”
Chedda, the eyewitness previously quoted, called himself a “Munawar fan” and said that he was a supporter of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he called “a very dynamic man”.
Chedda said he did not see any contradictions between his political beliefs and being a fan of Faruqui.
“No one should be offended by these jokes and if they are offended, they should just not listen to these jokes,” he said, adding that the mob that disrupted Faruqui’s show had no right to do what it did.
“When they say my religion, I wanted to ask them, who are you to call it your religion?” said Chedda. “Are you Lord Ram?”
Such tensions played out within the café when Gaur and his followers tried to disrupt the show.
In videos that Article 14 received from various audience members, many booed Gaur when he talked. Faruqui requested them to allow Gaur to speak.
At one point, a lady stood up and shouted, “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai (Hindus and Muslims are brothers),” drawing rapturous applause from the audience.
Gaur, in response, asked, “Is it only us Hindus who have to maintain this bhaichara (brotherhood)?”
Chheda said that such tensions finally ended with many in the audience being attacked after the show was stopped.
“Gaur’s men picked on the people who were vocally opposing them and assaulted them,” said Chheda. “They hit me on the head and I had scratch marks on my face.”
Gaur denied an attack and alleged that audience members were helping Faruqui flee. “That is why we had to stop them,” he said.
Haidry, the poet, felt that Faruqui’s battle was unlikely to be easily won: “The tragedy in today’s India is that hurting the religious sentiments of even one person from the country’s majority community is a greater crime than killing 15.”
That Faruqui was a Muslim, Haidry said, would only make the battle tougher.
“As we have seen, if there was a race to decide whom to call anti-nationals in India today,” said Haidry, “Dalits and Muslims have a very big headstart.”
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)