On December 4, Arun Yadav, BJP IT department’s Haryana chief, posted for his more than 4 lakh Twitter followers. “Will the show of a traitor like Munawar Faruqui be allowed to happen anywhere in Gurugram across India?”
It was about stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui’s scheduled performance at the three-Gurgaon Comedy Festival from December 17 to 19.
For Faruqui, it wasn’t the first such experience. In January, the comedian spent more than after he was accused by a member of the Hindu Rakshak outfit for hurting religious sentiments during one of his shows.
Three days after his release, Faruqui took to Instagram with a , stating “let the darkness inside me complain. I have made lakhs of faces laugh”. But the optimism appeared to be short-lived as he prepared to get back on stage, but show after show got cancelled amid threats by Hindutva outfits. On November 27, with 12 shows cancelled in two months, a frustrated Faruqui wrote that “hate has won” and the “artist has been defeated”.
But when approached by organisers of to perform at the Gurgaon Comedy Festival, Faruqui agreed. However, as soon as a poster of the line-up was released, co-found Mubin Tisekar told Newslaundry that they “began receiving multiple repeated threat calls”.
Two days later, Yadav approached the police accusing the comedian of offending Hindu sentiments through his jokes. Faruqui’s performance was dropped again as Yadav filed a complaint on December 6. He is not the only one to face the heat of the right wing for telling a joke.
Change and self-censorship
In 2020, comedian Kunal Kamra was accused of contempt of court for his social media posts and back in 2018 one of his shows were in Baroda because the vice chancellor of the university he was to perform in believed that Kamra would “ideologically pollute the minds of the youth” before the 2019 general elections.
Sanjay Rajoura, a satirist associated with Aisi Taisi Democracy, also faced a police complaint and abuse on social media last year over jokes seen as “hurting Hindu sentiments”. His Twitter account still stands suspended.
In the same year, stand up comedian Agrima Joshua received for allegedly insulting Chhatrapati Shivaraj Maharaj in a previous video.
In February, Hindi comedian Shyam Rangeela also faced a police complaint for a video mocking skyrocketing fuel prices while mimicking PM Narendra Modi outside a petrol pump in Rajasthan’s Sriganganagar. Rangeela had issued an apology but did not take down the video. Even in 2017, invited to perform at the Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Rangeela said he was not to mimic Modi or Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
More recently, a against comedian Vir Das for his performance at John F Kennedy Centre in Washington DC for “maligning India’s image”.
While the comedy scene in India has seen an unprecedented boom in the last decade with increased internet access and social media giving birth to new stars, the complaints, legal action, threats and trolls have had an adverse impact on the boundaries of a joke. This is evident in how comedians are even unwilling to talk about the fear of action or changes within the comedy circle.
“As a comedian, you don’t want to be scared or admit to self-censorship. You want to be fearless and take on the system. After all, our very existence is dependent on being able to talk about things that you and I don’t want to talk about. But then, as a human being, a family member, as a child, as a lover, I also want to be safe,” said one comedian who refused to be named.
Apart from Faruqui, some of the other comedians slated to perform at the festival are Rahul Dua, Nishant Suri, Atul Khatri, Gaurav Kapoor and Amit Tandon. Khatri and Tandon, among those who gave up their corporate jobs for a full-fledged comedy career, said they usually stay away from talking about politics on stage.
Like Faruqui, for most comedians the internet has been the space where they first found their calling. Both Khatri and Tandon told Newslaundry that initially they used to upload their videos on social media and it was only when these videos went viral did they decide to quit their jobs for comedy.
“I have not faced the kind of challenges like Munawar has,” said Tandon, adding that most of his scripts revolve around joint families, parenting and running a business, and that he usually avoids politics and religion on stage. “It’s not like I used to make fun of gods but there are words you would use in your drawing room, in your colloquial language that you want to joke about but people are a little touchy about things today. Maybe 10 years ago they might have laughed at it.”
Khatri said he reserves his political commentary for Twitter. “I don’t follow religion so much even though I am a Hindu so I don’t talk about it. I also talk about things that my audience is comfortable with.”
But for Aditi Mittal, who has often been at the receiving end of heavy online abuse despite the absence of explicit jokes on politics of religion, scripts usually are run past a lawyer. “I think we have been saying since 2012 that personal is political and political is personal. So how is one supposed to simply wake and decide not to be political. Everything is political.”
“In the last few years, things have not been good for comedians. Everything became systematic. You would crack a joke, the IT cells would get activated with hateful violent content and it would potentially threaten to turn into real physical violence” she said.”
However, Tandon thinks a lawyer will “only be able to tell you if you will go to jail or not. If people want to take offense they will do it anyway and you will get trolled anyway.”
Neeti Palta, a comedian who has been in the industry for close to 12 years, was also supposed to perform at the Gurgaon festival but dropped out due to scheduling problems. “Earlier we all had jokes on whoever was governing at that moment but yes it is changing now. Suddenly everything becomes sedition. There are no clear laws for us comedians. You can’t just find loopholes and charge us later.”
While many comedians Newslaundry spoke to said that comedy has certainly seen a lot more self-censorship in the last few years, especially since BJP has come to power, others pointed to a flipside﹘the good change that comes from awareness within society.
Khatri said that 10 years ago, fat shaming, talking about skin colour or using the word “rape” was very common. “Today you have to be very conscious about your words and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.”
Tandon thinks the heightened sensitivity reflects “evolution”. “Even when I look at my old performances, I cringe at what I did and said. Today I wouldn’t and won’t be allowed to say such things. And the awareness is also good in many ways.”
For organisers, ‘a huge risk’
Mubin Tisekar, one of the founders of The Entertainment Factory, said while a lot is spoken about the rejection felt by comedians, not enough is said about the toll that cancelling shows takes on companies that organise events.
“You have to understand the investment and planning that goes into hosting a comedy festival. It is a huge risk,” said Tisekar, an engineering graduate who began his journey in comedy in 2012 when he worked as a programmer at the Comedy Store, a London-based company. In 2017, he launched The Entertainment Factory.
On December 4, after Arun Yadav posted his “question” on Twitter, Tisekar said the organisers began receiving multiple threat calls.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone’s sentiments or put the public in danger that we took a decision along with Munawar to cancel his slot. For us, the safety of artists and the public is a priority,” he said.
This is not the first time Tisekar had to cancel a show. Back in 2019, when Kunal Kamra was to , members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad arrived at the venue two hours before the performance and told Tisekar that the show will not be allowed to go on.
“Even back then we had received threat calls but I didn’t take them as seriously as I should. This time, I am clear. Safety first,” he said.
For Tisekar it was not an easy decision. “I feel bad for Munawar. Telling him was hard. He is already struggling so much. And then, I felt bad for the people who were excited to watch him,” he said.
Tisekar also pointed out that cancelling an artist does not mean merely one person’s job being cancelled. “When we have to drop a comedian, a producer loses a show, persons employed for that slot lose their jobs. For example, if a product gets destroyed everything attached to that product gets destroyed too. It’s just like that” explained Tisekar.
If there’s anything that is common to all the comedians Newslaundry spoke to, it is that they all gave up their conventional careers and chose to follow their passion. In that sense, Arun Yadav of Haryana’s BJP IT cell is no different. Unlike many BJP leaders, Yadav was never part of RSS, Bajrang Dal, VHP or any other Sangh affiliates. Before 2013, he was an MBA graduate, working at a corporate company and then briefly at Google. But in 2013, things changed, he said. “I saw how Narendra Modi was going to do a lot of things for this country so I gave up my job and joined my passion, the BJP. I am the first in my family to join politics.”
Yadav’s Twitter profile picture is a photo of him with PM Modi. He regularly posts about being a “” along with those against .
On a regular day, Yadav wakes up, goes to the gym, spends time on Twitter, and trains groups on social media management. On an average, he tweets at least 15-19 times a day.
“I also like comedy. Like any human, I also like to laugh but I am not going to tolerate it if someone jokes about religion,” he said, adding that “if he (Faruqui) finds it so funny why doesn’t he joke about his own religion? Why joke about Hindu gods?”
His tweet on December 4 about Faruqui was retweeted 979 times and now has over 3,000 likes. Some of the comments explicitly call for violence. For , “We don't want Haryana's Khattar, we want Karnataka's kattar (extremist). Bhakts reach Gurgaon and wipe them out.”
Despite many of these comments violating Twitter’s , they continue to exist.
Yadav is relieved that the organisers of the Gurgaon festival took his police complaint seriously. But what if the organisers had not cancelled Faruqui’s slot? “Well then we would have gathered our karyakartas and done a peaceful protest at the site of the performance.”
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