Wisecracks about a 25-year-old Bollywood song and Home Minister Amit Shah in a nine-month-old YouTube video, a law that does not exist and another wrongly applied form the basis of a Uttar Pradesh police arrest warrant against standup comic Munawar Faruqui, now in jail for 18 days in Madhya Pradesh for jokes he did not make
SAURABH SHARMA & KUNAL PUROHIT
Lucknow/Mumbai: Jokes about a 25-year-old Bollywood song and Home Minister Amit Shah in nine-month-old YouTube videos, a wrongly applied section of the law and another that does not exist form the basis of a Uttar Pradesh (UP) police arrest warrant against standup comic Munawar Faruqui, now in jail for 18 days in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh (MP).
The Prayagraj police sent on 7 January what is called a production warrant, issued by a local court, to Central Jail Indore, where the 26-year-old comic is currently incarcerated. This means, Faruqui—arrested in Indore on 1 January and against whom the MP police have little or no evidence, as they admitted to Article 14 on 14 January—will move from one jail to another, even if freed on bail by the MP High Court.
“Mere pass jo sakshya hai jaise video usme saaf dikh raha hai ki inhone (Munawar) Hindu devi devtao par tippani ki hai. The evidence that I have in the form of a video clearly shows that he (Faruqui) has commented on Hindu gods and goddesses,” investigation officer Inspector Dhakeshwar Singh of the Prayagraj police told Article 14 over the phone. There is no evidence that these comments constitute criminality, said experts.
Article 14 sought comment from Prayagraj Senior Superintendent of Police Sarvashreshth Tripathi but he did not answer calls made on 18 January.
The case in UP is based on an FIR filed on 19 April 2020 on a complaint by Ashutosh Mishra, a lawyer and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and it is similar to one filed by a former Shiv Sena worker, Ramesh Solanki, on 15 April 2020 in Mumbai.
The difference is that the Mumbai police did not file an FIR. One of four sections of the law quoted in the UP police FIR is “promoting enmity”, which Indian courts have always reminded investigators and lawyers can only be used if criminal intent is involved, which is absent in Faruqui’s case. Another section no longer exists, removed by the Supreme Court five years ago.
Inspector Singh attributed the nine-month delay in acting on the FIR to the fact that it was transferred to the crime branch, where he works, in November 2020. “I started working on the investigation on 26 November,” he said.
Offending Jokes About Bollywood Movie Song, Amit Shah
In one of the videos cited by the police and complainant Mishra, Faruqui mocked a 1995 Hindi film song, Mera piya ghar aya, oh Ramji (my beloved has come home, oh Ram) and the irony behind the words, pointing to Ram’s own 14-year-long exile.
“What a strange song, isn’t it?...Ram ji doesn’t give a f**k about your piya (sic). Ram ji is saying I haven’t gone home for 14 years myself,” said Faruqui, who then joked about how Sita might respond to the song. “She will start doubting...she will say (to the actor singing the song), if your husband is home, why are you updating my husband, bitch?”
In the other video, Faruqui joked about how he thought he was watching a popular Hindi movie from 1980, The Burning Train, when his father tried to stop him. “My father told me, don’t watch this nonsense. Flip the channel,” said Faruqui, adding that he asked his father to explain why. His father, Faruqui said, told him that the clip was actually of the Godhra riots and that he was watching a news channel.
“I thought it was a movie, directed by Amit Shah or something,” Faruqui said.
Mishra’s complaint mentioned both these videos, he told Article 14. “In one of the videos he was trying to fix the blame of 2002 Godhra riots on Home Minister Amit Shah and the RSS, while in the other video he made fun of lord Rama and goddess Sita,” Mishra said, adding that there were “many videos” of Faruqui on the internet where he had made “objectionable comments”.
“We have tolerated such jokes in the past. But, now to stop it, I am taking legal recourse,” said Mishra, who practices at the Allahabad High Court and courts in Delhi. “All I want is him to be punished by the court under relevant sections.”
UP Police FIR Comes 9 Months After Complaint
Acting on Mishra’s complaint after nine months, the Prayagraj police registered cases against Faruqui under sections 153-A, 295-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, “promoting enmity between different religious groups...prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”, “deliberately intending to outrage religious feelings,” and sections 65 and 66 of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2008, for “tampering with computer source documents” and “sending offensive messages through communication service”.
Section 153A has been frequently and wrongly invoked by the UP police to implicate protestors and minorities, such as peace activist Faisal Khan, as Article 14 reported on 22 December 2020. Section 66 here refers to section 66A of the IT Act, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015 but still illegally used by police nationwide.
If found guilty, Faruqui faces up to four years in prison.
For nearly nine months after the FIR was lodged, the Prayagraj police did nothing. Asked about the delay, Singh said they did not have the name of Faruqui’s father and the comedian’s address mentioned in the complaint was found to be wrong.
Mishra alleged that Faruqui also made an “objectionable comment” on the “janata curfew”, a controversial nationwide lockdown announced as a measure against Covid-19 with a four-hour notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March 2020.
“He indirectly tried to say that it (the lockdown) was an excuse for the police to crack down on Muslims,” said Mishra, who denied any affiliation with the Bharatiya Janata Party. “I have not mentioned this in the FIR, and I will present (these) facts in the court. My next course of action will be bringing him to the court and get him punished.”
A summary of the FIR copy, available with Article 14, reads:
“I am an advocate, and I want to bring it to your attention that our country is reeling from a pandemic, and it is expected from everyone to follow his/her duty responsibly in order to boost the morale of the state but...few anti-social elements do not shy away from their habits. On April 16th I saw a video on Youtube by Munawar Faruqui, and after watching it I came to understand that this man has a big fan following, and whatever he says makes an impact on a large section of people. Whatever has been said in the video can hurt religious sentiments. Comments have been made on Home Minister Amit Shah, and an attempt has been made to show that he was responsible for 2002 Godhra riots. Similarly, in the other video comments have been made on Lord Rama and Sita which can hurt religious sentiments of the Hindu community.”
UP Police FIR Lacks Detail, Unavailable To Public
The FIR registered in Prayagraj has not been uploaded on the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS), as most are. Investigation officer Singh did not know why. "Mai to investigation officer hu mujhe nahi pata (I am the investigation officer, and I don't know),” he said.
The FIR lacks normally required detail, such as the address and mobile number of the complainant. The FIR also does not contain any specific remarks that Faruqui has allegedly made that are “objectionable” and “hurtful”, as Mishra alleged.
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, told Article 14 last week that such detail was necessary to demonstrate the alleged crime.
“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,” she had told Article 14. The station house officer of George Town police station, Shishupal Sharma, did not answer calls made to him on 18 January.
Despite having spent 18 days in custody, this fresh twist means that Faruqui’s legal troubles are only mounting.
Even as the stand-up comic’s bail application is pending before the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and is slated for hearing on 25 January, the Prayagraj police are gearing up to take his custody as soon as he gets bail.
“Once he gets bail in Indore he will be brought to Prayagraj and the police will produce him in the local court and after that it will be the decision of the court,” said Singh, the investigation officer.
According to a member of Faruqui’s legal team, this meant chances of an early release are slim. “Even if he gets bail in Indore, he will anyway have to re-apply for bail afresh starting with the lower courts in Prayagraj,” the lawyer said, on condition of anonymity.
Such a process, the lawyer said, can take time. In Indore, Faruqui’s bail applications were rejected by two courts, while his application in the High Court was adjourned on 16 January, after the Indore police failed to submit the case diary during the hearing.
Former Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament (MP) from Kanpur, Subhashini Ali described Faruqui’s ordeal as a “witch-hunt”.
“The UP police has produced the warrant only to stop this stand-up comic from getting bail,” said Ali. “The Madhya Pradesh police has failed to make a case and he would have obtained bail in the next hearing.”
Online Police Complaint In Mumbai Too, But No FIR
Even as the Prayagraj police filed an FIR without Mishra providing exact details of what Faruqui said in the videos, the Mumbai Police responded very differently, as we said, to a similar complaint about the same videos.
On 15 April, six days after Faruqui posted his video on YouTube, now edited to exclude the controversial bit, Shiv Sena worker Solanki, who quit the party in November 2019 to protest its decision to align with the Congress, filed an online complaint with the Mumbai Police.
In his complaint, Solanki, whose Twitter profile describes him as “A Very Proud Hindu Nationalist” and who calls Faruqui a "hate-monger," wrote that the comic was “insulting Hindu god and goddesses,” through these jokes.
“He has been continuously doing so on open platforms like live performances and shows. His activities have offended my Hindu Faith,” he wrote in the complaint, adding the jokes were “deliberately done to create communal disharmony”.
Solanki told Article 14 that while his statement was recorded by the Mumbai police nearly a fortnight after the complaint, an FIR was yet to be registered by the police.
“I had to leave Mumbai soon after and haven’t returned since,” said Solanki. “The cops told me that they will file the FIR once I return to Mumbai, so I plan to go back and follow up on it,” he said.
According to the Mumbai Police website, online complaints are filed only for “minor crimes” that are “non cognisable”; section 2 (l) of The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, defines such offences to mean “cases in which a police officer has no authority to arrest without a warrant”. Dipak Nipam, senior police inspector in-charge of the Lokmanya Tilak Marg Police station in Mumbai, where Solanki said he filed his complaint, did not respond to Article 14’s repeated calls and messages on 18 January.
According to a Mumbai-based friend of the comic, Faruqui did not face any action after the complaint, nor was he questioned on the issue by the Mumbai police.
(Saurabh Sharma is an independent journalist based in Lucknow, and Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)