It was going to be the best year of Munawar Iqbal Faruqui’s life. The 29-year-old stand-up comic from Mumbai was set to complete his first tour of India. His YouTube channel had crossed 500,000 subscribers. And in the spring, he was to perform his first international show in Dubai. “His dreams were coming true,” a close family member, who asked not to be named, told me.
Everything changed on the evening of Jan. 1, when a group of Hindu nationalists walked into the café in Indore, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where Faruqui was to perform, clad in jeans and trendy white sneakers. One of the men forced his way onto the stage and accused the stand-up, who is Muslim, of hurting Hindu sentiments. The intruder was referring not to a joke Faruqui had just made, but one that he’d uploaded on YouTube in April 2020. It referenced Rama, a widely worshipped Hindu deity, and his wife Sita. “O Lord, my beloved, has come home,” Faruqui starts, dropping lyrics from an enormously popular Bollywood song in which a woman celebrates the return of her lover. Then comes the punchline: “Ramji don’t give a f-ck about your beloved.” The audience erupts. “He says, ‘I myself haven’t returned home for fourteen years.”
Faruqui addressed the intruder, who was only a few years older as “sir.” He explained that he had made many more jokes about his own community than he ever had about Hindus. He expressed regret over the joke, which had long since been deleted from YouTube, but pointed out that he’d been punished already. Online commentators had sent him death threats. Two police complaints were filed against him.
After some back and forth the intruder appeared to accept Faruqui’s apology and made his way down from the stage. A woman called out to him, “Sir, listen to me, Hindus and Muslims are brothers.” The crowd hooted and clapped. Someone shouted, “Munawar we are with you!” The comedian raised his arm in a gesture of appreciation.
The intruder was later identified as Aklavya Laxman Singh Gaur, the son of the city’s mayor who is a long-time member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Hindu hardline party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dominated Indian political life since 2014. Gaur is himself a member of Hind Rakshak, one of an innumerable number of Hindu outfits affiliated with the BJP. Gaur left, but within minutes, the police barged in to arrest Faruqui.
It soon seemed clear that the sequence of events—the onstage grandstanding followed by an orchestrated arrest—had been arranged in advance. No matter what he did that night, Faruqui was going to be punished. The comic was accused of making “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks about Hindu deities and charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 295 A: “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” He was facing up to four years in prison. Four of his associates were also arrested that evening.
Two days later, under press scrutiny, the police admitted that the claims against Faruqui relied entirely on the word of the Hindu nationalist intruder. But the police superintendent in charge was defiant. He accused Faruqui of the “intent” to offend. “The system has so much power now that they can suppress you without any evidence,” Varun Grover, a popular stand-up comic and screenwriter who has come out in support of Faruqui, told TIME. “It doesn’t matter that [Munawar] didn’t even cross any pre-existing red line—they can create new arbitrary red lines on the ground and arrest you for your thoughts.”
There were potentially worse things ahead for Faruqui. The police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh had acted on one of the complaints filed against him last year and a warrant was put out for his arrest. This meant that even if he got bail in this case, he faced re-arrest and jail in Uttar Pradesh, a state run by the Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath who has called Muslims “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped.”
Faruqui’s arrest is another example of the majoritarian wave sweeping India. A hardline group attacked him without provocation. Then the police, whose only evidence comes from a contested claim, took him to jail. Finally, the lower courts repeatedly denied him bail, which is commonly granted under trials in India, despite what seemed to be the absence of reasonable grounds to believe he had committed an offense. The sequence of events raises questions that go beyond mobs, politics, and police—which is whether there is justice in India at all. Speaking to TIME from Delhi, Faruqui’s lawyer, Vivek Tankha described the events as “the art of the ridiculous.”
Across India, there are clear signs that freedom of speech is being systematically attacked. A database published by the website Article 14 showed that of the 405 cases filed for criticizing politicians and governments over the last decade, 96% were registered after 2014, when Modi came to power. One hundred and forty-nine people have been accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against the prime minister. And in early February police in two BJP-ruled states introduced further anti free speech measures. In Uttrakhand, the police announced that they will be monitoring social media and that anyone found to be “anti-national” or “anti-social” “must be prepared for dire consequences.” In Bihar, the police said that protesters may not be eligible for government jobs, bank loans and passports. And in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority region, which is administered from the national capital, the police invited volunteers or “content flaggers” from the public to help them monitor online activity. One civil right activist pointed out that the move could turn into “a witch hunt.”
At Faruqui’s last bail hearing, on Jan. 25, the presiding judge said, “Such people must not be spared.” And so Faruqui remained in Indore Central Jail, a place that is crammed with almost twice as many prisoners as it was built to hold and has already witnessed an outbreak of COVID-19. “Is this a democracy?” Tankha, the lawyer, wondered.
The son of an impoverished driver, Faruqui had worked hard to achieve the Indian middle-class dream. Stand-up comedy is still in a nascent stage in India, and Faruqui was among a small group of comics and an even smaller group of Muslim comics. His friend and fellow comic Saad Sheikh says that Faruqui had wanted to use humor to challenge negative stereotypes about their community. At a time of dangerous religious polarization, Faruqui wanted to convey that Hindus and Muslims shared a culture. Faruqui’s message, Sheikh says, was that “we’re not that different from you.”
Faruqui had emerged from a set of circumstances that were unique to his religious identity. He was a child in the city of Junagarh in the state of Gujarat in 2002 at the time of the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place when Modi was chief minister. “I was born and brought up in Gujarat,” Faruqui has joked. “Survived in Gujarat.” But while he had experienced hatred he did not himself succumb to it. His friendship group remained mixed and he refused to see himself as a target, Sheikh says.
When he was 16, Faruqui’s mother died by suicide and his father moved the family to Mumbai to start afresh. There, his father found work as a driver. Faruqui had already dropped out of school, and worked as a shop assistant, selling utensils. He taught himself Hindi and English, attaining such a level of proficiency that he later performed in both languages. After his father’s health deteriorated, Faruqui assumed still greater responsibilities—his three sisters had to be married, and weddings meant dowries. Early last year, Faruqui’s father passed away leaving him with the full responsibility of family affairs.
By his early twenties, Faruqui was working as a graphic designer at a reputable firm. When some stand-up comics on YouTube caught his eye, Faruqui decided that was what he really wanted to do. “I’ve gained a lot and lost a lot,” he said. “But I want to make people laugh.” After working all day, he wrote jokes in the evenings and practiced on family. He attended open mic events in cafes, paying to perform before a crowd, as often as three or four times in one night. Sometimes, a close family member tells TIME, he arrived back home at 1 a.m.
With his boyish good looks, trendy sweatshirts and the plentiful f-bombs with which he peppered his jokes, Faruqui appeared to fit right in with his privileged middle-class audience. But his repertoire might have given him away. He didn’t shy from pointed social commentary. “TikTok is the second most hated community in this country,” he said in one set. “You know which the first one is.”
Last year, after he started his YouTube channel, some of his videos got more than 2 million views. He was offered lucrative gigs performing on college campuses and could afford to leave his job and focus on comedy. He rapped, recited poetry and composed music. “The dream was stand up,” says Sagar Punjabi, another friend and fellow comic. “But the ambition is endless.”
Kunal Kamra, another popular stand-up comic, with more than 1 million Twitter followers, describes Faruqui as a “breakthrough act.” “The Indian stand up scene is pretty close knit,” he told TIME “and it’s very difficult to make it.” But Faruqui had succeeded by sheer diligence. “He is always out there trying out new material.”
Kamra’s own life was an example of just how dangerous the pursuit of even just a laugh had become in India. After he took aim at government policies, the comic received death threats and was evicted from his apartment. And last December, Kamra was sent a contempt notice because of some tweets that criticized the Supreme Court. “If you want a career in the arts in India,” he said, “it should by now be clear that you should hide your opinions. Or befriend many, many lawyers.”
In January, a few days after Faruqui was sent to jail, Hindu nationalists again claimed offence, this time over a fictional political drama on Amazon called Tandav. The director Ali Abbas Zafar was quick to issue a public apology and even went to the extreme step of deleting scenes, but he was still named in police complaints in six states along with members of his cast and crew.
Zafar and Faruqui were only exercising their right to free speech. But as Muslims, the two entertainers were under a magnifying glass. Attacks on Muslims have now become so routine that they blur together and appear inevitable. Asked why he doesn’t post many of his videos online one Muslim comic recently told the Lounge newspaper, “Because Munawar is in jail. The offense-taking machinery is not random.” Kamra, the stand-up comic, agrees: “It is not what Munawar said, it is who he is.”
This message has been clearly transmitted and equally clearly received. Although members of Faruqui’s immediate family spoke to me over a period of two weeks they asked that I not publish their names. “You know what it’s like in India,” one said. “They go after wives and sisters, they say ‘we’ll rape them on the street.’”
On February 5, a Friday, the Supreme Court granted Faruqui bail. He had by then spent 37 days in jail. The Court described the allegations laid out against the comic as “vague” and said that the police hadn’t followed procedure while arresting him. It also stayed the warrant from the police in Uttar Pradesh.
“The order was in place, his lawyers, his family was outside the jail,” reported NDTV, but officials initially refused to release him, saying they had yet to receive the order from the Supreme Court. “Our police has not done anything wrong,” said Vishwas Sarang, a BJP minister in the Madhya Pradesh state cabinet. Why should anyone be allowed to make fun of Hindu Gods and Goddesses?” Sarang’s words, said one of Faruqui’s lawyers, explained the “highly unusual behavior of the jail administration.” It was around midnight on Saturday, February 6, that the comic was finally allowed to walk out of jail, not a free man, merely free for now. “I have full faith in the judiciary,” he told NDTV. His four associates remain in prison.
Munawar Iqbal Faruqui was the face of the Indian dream. An example of how an individual’s economic circumstances and religion need never stand in the way of his ambition and skill. His dream is on hold, but the stand-up comic remains the face of his country—a place where dreams can quickly turn into nightmares.
Faleiro is the author of The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing. Her previous book is Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.