- Shivangani Misra
Comedy vs Censorship: The Munawar Faruqui Fallout
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
On 2nd January 2021, stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was arrested for a joke he did not even make. And instantly, my Instagram was abuzz with all the latest updates since I follow several comedians, one of them being my friend. Anxious conversations started at her home about being "careful" and "prevention is better than cure".
The incident was on the heels of the start of our second semester, where we had to pick a topic to conduct qualitative research. Riled up by freedom of speech vs religious sentiment debates, I decided to research how comedy interacts with social media.
The significance of this study can be understood by appreciating comedy's role in upholding freedom of speech, wherein social media offers a platform for public discourse, especially with 32.3 per cent of India's total population on it (Kemp, 2021). Often comedy is brushed aside as something inconsequential or a means of amusement. However, it's also an alternative form of social commentary that brings personal reflections and societal oddities to light and makes one think about the daily happenings and current events. Hence, it is imperative to protect the right to do comedy. Moreover, influential comedians like Vir Das, Kenny Sebastian, Radhika Vaz, Neeti Palta, etc. have openly lamented about India's dwindling freedom of speech (Deccan Chronicle, 2016; Rawal, 2021)
Lastly, stand-up comedy essentially moved online with the country in total lockdown, proving a fertile ground for my research. Hence, in this article, I present my findings and analysis to my research question- How do Comedians Perceive Social Media?
Munawar Faruqui, a 29-year-old stand-up comedian, was detained by the Indore police on 1st January 2021 after a complaint made by local BJP MLA's son Eklavya Singh Gaur convenor of the local Hindu Rakshak outfit. Faruqui was arrested a day later for allegedly hurting religious sentiments during the comedy event at Monroe Café. Funnily though, he was detained even before he took the stage.
The complaint was registered under IPC Sections 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings), 298 (Uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and 34 (common intention) and for flouting COVID-19 norms.
Faruqui filed a bail application before the Sessions Court, which moved to the Madhya Pradesh High Court after being rejected. The High Court also rejected his bail, saying the evidence collected suggested: "disparaging utterances, outraging religious feelings…with deliberate intendment,...made by the applicant" (Ahmed, 2021). However, the Town Inspector of Tukaganj Police Station, Kamlesh Sharma, admitted there's no evidence against Faruqui showing him insulting Hindu gods (Express News Service, 2021).
The Supreme Court eventually granted bail to Faruqui on 5th February 2021. It said the allegations against him were vague and that the police had not complied with the lawful procedure under Section 41 of the CrPC (Rajagopal, 2021). But by then, he had spent a month in jail.
Findings and Analysis
I interviewed six comics with varying Instagram and YouTube followings and thematically analysed the data for the qualitative research study. The two dominant themes that emerged from the study were i) self-censorship ii) fear of law and security.
"Censorship is when a work of art expressing an idea which does not fall under the current convention is seized, cut up, withdrawn, impounded, ignored, maligned, or otherwise made inaccessible to its audience."
-Ritu Menon, for Women's World Organisation for Rights (Ghai & Bhanu, 2020)
It's self-censorship when fear of criticism or backlash forces one to control their content. This was acutely visible in all interviews conducted during the research. Most respondents now avoid making political or religious jokes due to safety and security fears, especially after Munawar's arrest. Statements like "have to be extra careful", "stopped news comedy", "100 per cent censored now", "people can destroy your career" were made. They added that one couldn't make all kinds of jokes online since it risks being taken out of context.
The current situation is eerily similar to political reformer Jeremy Bentham's panoptic device. He designed the Panopticon, a surveillance apparatus designed for a prison where the inspector can spy on all prisoners without them being able to see the inspector. This apparent omnipresence of the officer keeps the inmates' behaviour in check since they feel they are being watched at all times (Miller & Miller, 1987).
Similarly, the comedians also choose their words more wisely since they fear any act of supposed misconduct will attract disciplinary action. They actively avoid jokes which go against the current political narrative. Most of the respondents didn't dabble with the political or religious genre anyway. Their jokes had God or leaders in the background but never as the main subject of the joke. However, they now refrain from making any slight references also.
Respected philosopher John Stuart Mill had said free discourse is necessary for intellectual and social progress. As a strong proponent of free speech, Mill contended that we could never be sure if a silenced opinion does not contain an element of truth. However, by filing FIRs against comedians and subjecting them to online hate, the current political climate has effectively curbed free speech in comedy.
Another theme I observed is the respondents' fear of law and security. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are free speech and expression platforms. In reality, this freedom seems to be purely notional. In their defence, the platforms don't block any content unless it violates their hate speech policy, but the implications of the free speech practised on the internet are what curbs free thought.
When the respondents were asked why they avoid certain kinds of jokes, they said "the law is vague", and it's important to "survive first". They recounted several incidents where a comedian's contact details leaked online, and they got threatening calls. Many of them had to apologise for jokes they had tweeted years ago because of online "harassment". One Muslim comic, in particular, was asked whether he feels a Hindu comedian can get away with jokes a Muslim comedian can't? He said he is unsure if that is the reality, but he does feel that way. "The fact that it (Munawar Faruqui's incident) made me feel like I did not have privilege is a reality I did not like".
Humour is often used as a social cohesion tool (Meyer, 1997; Scott, 2019). It brings people together by making them laugh at similar experiences and odd realities. However, in this case, instead of comedy helping bridge gaps within religiously diverse groups, it's being used to alienate a member of the minority community.
Nonetheless, it's not all dull and decaying for comedy in India. It's important to caveat the above findings. Social media has been a great business tool for comedians, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown when all live shows stopped. It proved to be a new money-making avenue for many when they got sponsorships because of high online engagement. Most of the participants were relatively young in the profession, with an audience limited to a few cities. Social media helped them take their content to a broader market and gain a fan base outside their urban circle.
Comedy is often labelled frivolous and as entertainment. However, comedy, like any other art form, is a reflection of society. Hence, it doesn't bode well for India when its citizens fear "consequences" over a joke.
I understand freedom of speech versus sentiments is a debate not ending anytime soon. But tolerance of curbed thought is not the solution. As India drafts regulatory policies for social media and OTT platforms, it's crucial we delicately balance what constitutes artistic freedom and offence, lest we become a society that can't take a joke.
Ahmed, A. U. (2021, 29th January). Munawar Faruqui case: When comedy becomes crime and bail is the exception. Bar and Bench. https://www.barandbench.com/columns/munawar-faruqui-case-when-comedy-becomes-crime-and-bail-is-the-exception
Deccan Chronicle. (2016, 24th January). India's unfunny bone. Deccan Chronicle. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/cover-story/230116/india-s-unfunny-bone.html
Express News Service. (2021, 4th January). Fellow comedians back Faruqui, cop says no video of him insulting Hindu deities . The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/fellow-comedians-back-munawar-faruqui-cop-says-no-video-of-him-insulting-hindu-deities-7131613/
Ghai, P., & Bhanu, A. P. (2020). Censorship in India vis-à-vis Freedom of Speech: Comparison of the Extent of Censorship Laws in India and Abroad. Journal of Critical Reviews , 7(13), 2020. https://doi.org/10.31838/jcr.07.13.78
Kemp, S. (2021, 11th February). Digital 2021: India. DataReportal. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-india
Meyer, J. C. (1997). Humor in member narratives: Uniting and dividing at work. Western Journal of Communication, 61(2), 188–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/10570319709374571
Miller, J.-A., & Miller, R. (1987). Jeremy Bentham's Panoptic Device. The MIT Press, 41, 3. https://doi.org/10.2307/778327
Rajagopal, K. (2021, 5th February). Comedian Munawar Faruqui, accused of hurting religious feelings, gets bail from Supreme Court . The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/comedian-munawar-faruqui-accused-of-hurting-religious-feelings-gets-bail-from-supreme-court/article33757583.ece
Rawal, R. (2021, 17th January). Choke of a joke: India is becoming a dangerous place for stand-up comics. Mumbai Mirror. https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/others/sunday-read/choke-of-a-joke/articleshow/80309070.cms
Scott, S. (2019, 24th October). The mystery of what makes a joke funny – but only to some people. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-mystery-of-what-makes-a-joke-funny-but-only-to-some-people-12576
Cover image: Source
About the author: Shivangani Misra is a second-year student of master’s in public policy. She is a former journalist, and her interest lies in technology, media, and gender policy.