To the long and growing list of people that the Bharatiya Janata Party appears to be intolerant or perhaps scared of, which includes students, activists, journalists, academics and human rights defenders, a new category can be added — comedians. For what else can explain the hounding of the young comedian Munawar Faruqui, whose shows are cancelled wherever he goes?

The organisers were compelled to cancel a show in Bangalore last week, following a letter they received from the city police the previous day, ‘suggesting’ that the show could create a law and order situation. This advice came after the Hindu Jagran Samiti and the Jai Shri Ram Sena — both right-wing Hindutva organisations — approached the police to cancel the show. This became the 12th time in succession that Faruqui couldn’t perform on stage because of similar reasons.

In normal circumstances, the police, sworn to uphold the constitution, should have ignored this appeal and strengthened security around the auditorium. But these are hardly normal times, and so the police told Faruqui to cancel his performance. It is a wonder the cops did not arrest the comedian. The irony is that he had performed the same set in Bangalore on three occasions in the past year.

Karnataka is ruled by a BJP government — as is Madhya Pradesh, where Faruqui was jailed for a month for a joke he didn’t crack but allegedly intended to, and then, after the Indian Supreme Court granted him interim bail, was still not released as there was a warrant against him in Prayagraj, for “hurting religious sentiments.” Uttar Pradesh, too, has a BJP government.

Hindutva organisations’ intimidation has led to stand-up artist Munawar Faruqui’s shows being cancelled again and again. Why is the Indian right wing so anti-jokes and anti-joke tellers?

What is it about comedians, and Faruqui in particular, that the Hindutva warriors don’t like? After all, the vidushak is an inalienable part of the grand Indian tradition. Folk performances, such as tamasha in Maharashtra, always have a funnyman and even Ramleela plays are full of ribald jokes cracked by the village comedian. Not just argumentative, we Indians are also blessed with a robust sense of humour and the ability to laugh at power structures. In a country with hardships, a sense of humour is necessary to keep one’s sanity. It is a safety valve or sorts.

So why is the Sangh system, self-proclaimed upholders of the ‘Hindu civilisation’, so anti-jokes and anti-joke-tellers?

An important part of attacking Faruqui is of course that he is a Muslim and the Hindutva right wing is determined to marginalise Muslims from the national mainstream. That is not overtly stated but obvious to anyone who has seen bigotry grow and bloom during these past seven years. BJP administrations in various states have benignly looked on and even backed the efforts of rabid organisations and freelancers. The police happily cooperates.

Faruqui was jailed for a month for a joke he didn’t crack but allegedly intended to, and then, after the Indian Supreme Court granted him interim bail, was still not released as there was a warrant against him, for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.

But comedians are feared because they ridicule, mock, taunt and, through that, point to the sheer absurdity of Hindutva. One of Faruqui’s jokes was about the people of Junagarh being so lazy they wouldn’t even participate in a riot; this at a time when the rest of Gujarat burned in 2002 and hundreds of people, mainly Muslim, were killed. Such lacerating jokes cannot but show the mirror of bigotry to communal elements and this they cannot face.

The Hindutva ecosystem does not like arguments or questions — consider the way in which Parliament debates on crucial issues are simply not held or how the independent media is shut out. The prime minister has not held a single press conference in seven years and was equally wary of journalists in Gujarat.

The BJP-friendly media, such as the noisy television channels and many print publications, is encouraged, the rest are debarred. The press has not been allowed to cover parliamentary proceedings for five sessions, including the present one, where the crucial farm laws were repealed — again without a debate. It all comes down to fear of being questioned and challenged. Opposition spokespersons on TV shows are shouted down.

That a party with an overwhelming majority in Parliament has such insecurities is a mystery which social scientists will one day, it is hoped, resolve.

Faruqui has already hinted he will not perform again, thus giving up his profession and his passion. He has said that hate has won. The treatment meted out to him will not just silence him but also have a chilling effect on other comedians; already many of them have stopped holding public performances and others have moved on to ‘safer’ subjects. And the joke really is on us all.

By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 5th, 2021

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