Mumbai: Two complainants said that stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui joked about Hindu gods and goddesses while “practicing” in a gallery before the show. Another said he joked about these gods while performing on stage, making no mention of “practice”. And statements of all three use identical language although they claimed to be at different locations.
In rejecting bail for standup comic Munawar Faruqui and co-accused Nalin Yadav on 28 January—28 days after they were first arrested and denied bail twice for “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks against Hindu gods, the Madhya Pradesh High Court referred to these accounts of Hindu vigilantes and said the case against Faruqui “was not a case of no evidence”.
The denial of bail comes 14 days after Indore’s police chief told Article 14 that Faruqui, 30, made no such jokes. Three eyewitnesses to Faruqui’s act of 1 January said the same and added that the jokes he did make that night revolved around Muslim customs and culture.
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The single-judge bench of Justice Rohit Arya had said on 25 January: “But why you take undue advantage of other’s religious sentiments and emotions. What is wrong with your mindset? How can you do this for the purpose of your business?”
“Such people must not be spared,” said Justice Arya.
The court order of 28 January appears to have relied on statements made by three members of a Hindu vigilante group led by Aklavya Gaur, the son of a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of legislative assembly (MLA). Gaur is the convenor of the Hind Rakshak Sangathan (Hindu Protection Union), an Indore-based organisation that calls itself the “custodian of the Hindu Rashtra, religion and culture”.
Vigilantes entered the cafe and disrupted Faruqui’s performance, allegedly attacked some in the audience and called police to arrest Faruqui and four others for making jokes about Hindu deities. No action was taken against the vigilantes, who were commended by Indore Superintendent of Police (SP) Vijay Khatri for being “active and alert”.
All three statements by Gaur and his aides that the prosecution quoted as “evidence” to reject Faruqui’s bail use identical language to describe Faruqui’s jokes. Except, two of them claimed that Faruqui cracked these jokes during “practice” before the show while Gaur, the main complainant, said that these jokes were cracked during the performance.
Article 14 contacted three independent witnesses to verify these statements. All three said neither did Faruqui “practice” before the performance nor did he joke about Hindu deities through his performance, which was disrupted mid-way.
“I was one of the first people to reach the venue,” said 30-year-old Kavita B (name changed), who was in the audience for the 1 January show at Indore’s Monroe café. “Faruqui was nowhere to be seen; we saw him only at 4.20 pm, when he came out to perform,” she said.
Yet, the High Court order quoted two witnesses accompanying Gaur, Kunal Parik and Shubhendra Gaud, who claimed that he joked about Hindu gods and goddesses and used abusive language.
Both their statements are so identical that Gaud calls himself Parik and ends up referring to himself in the third person, as Parik did in his statement.
“Me and Gaud were standing outside in the gallery,” Parik said in his statement.
“Me and Gaud were standing outside in the gallery,” Gaud said in his statement.
All three use the exact same words to describe Faruqui’s act, despite the fact that they claimed to have “witnessed” the jokes at two different locations—two in a gallery watching the rehearsal that eyewitnesses say never happened and the third inside the cafe.
Faruqui’s show organisers Yadav and Edwin Anthony, fellow comic Prakhar Vyas, and associate Pratik Vyas were also arrested by the Indore Police the same day. His friend Sadakat Khan was arrested a day later.
All six have been charged under sections 295-A, 298, 269, 188 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, for "deliberately intending to outrage religious feelings," for “uttering words etc with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings,” “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life” (in view of the pandemic), for “disobedience to order” and for “acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.” If convicted, they could face up to four years in prison.
The six men have remained in judicial custody, with their bail applications rejected, thrice in Faruqui and Yadav’s case.
Jokes Described Resemble Old Videos
In statements that are part of the High Court order, Gaur, Parik and Gaud describe jokes that Faruqui is alleged to have made. The jokes they describe are similar to those in a Faruqui video from April 2020, where he had mocked a popular 1995 Hindi film song Mera Piya Ghar Aaya Oh Ram Ji and the irony behind the words, pointing to Ram’s own 14-year-long exile. He had made no joke about Ram or Hinduism.
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Faruqui faced criticism and police complaints after that video and the hashtag #ArrestMunawarFaruqui trended on social media. He later deleted this joke from the video and apologised, declaring that he did not intend to hurt anyone’s sentiments.
In the same video, Faruqui had joked about funny signs on motorcycles in Mumbai, specifically one about cheating death. “That message must have confused Yamraj (the Hindu god of death) so much, because he would end up taking the wrong people to heaven,” Faruqui had said.
In their statements, all three—Gaur, Parik and Gaud—have rehashed these jokes and said that Faruqui made them during his 1 January show.
The three independent eyewitnesses told Article 14 that none of these jokes were even mentioned in his act on 1 January.
Kavita B said that Gaur went to the stage as soon as Faruqui entered, disrupting the show. Videos of that evening show him calling Faruqui “a serial offender” and warning him that he “cannot crack jokes on Ram here”.
After Faruqui pacified Gaur on stage for more than 10 minutes and asked him to watch the performance for himself, the comic finally started his act, before being interrupted again in seven minutes, Kavita said.
“In that short act, he cracked jokes about attending a Muslim friend’s wedding where he took digs at various aspects of culture in Muslim society, including polygamy,” said Kavita. “We enjoyed the act so much that we had forgotten about the earlier fracas.”
The Indore police had confirmed Kavita’s account: that Faruqui made no “objectionable jokes” in his act.
Talking to Article 14 on 14 January, SP Khatri had said: “There was hungama (ruckus) at the venue even before Faruqui could perform,” said Khatri. “But, we were told (by the complainants) that when they (comics) were rehearsing before the show, they were cracking jokes about Ram, Shivji.”
Khatri had added that “it didn’t really matter” if Faruqui had not made the comments attributed to him. “The fact that he had been rehearsing such jokes means he would have cracked these jokes, anyway.”
An About-Turn By Complainants
The allegations of Gaur and his aides are very different from what Gaur, the main complainant, first said in the first information report (FIR) filed at Indore’s Tukoganj police station on 1 January.
The FIR, a copy of which is with Article 14, does not contain any specific remarks made by Faruqui. It only alleges that the stand-up comic made “indecent” and “vulgar” remarks at the show, indicating a “conspiracy to hurt Hindu religious sentiments and insult Hindu culture and traditions”.
In a statement quoted in Thursday’s order, Gaur offered a fresh, detailed account of Faruqui’s alleged act that evening where, Gaur alleged, the comic made “objectionable comments” about Ram, Sita, claiming Faruqui even insulted Hindu mythological epics, such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat, allegations missing from the FIR.
“Faruqui said that all Hindu gods and goddesses are born out of illicit relations, and that this was also mentioned in the Ramayan and the Mahabharat,” Gaur alleged in his statement to the HC.
None of this happened on 1 January, 20-year-old Akash Chheda (Name changed), another independent eyewitness told Article 14.
“It seems like Gaur saw the old video, where Faruqui cracked some of these jokes and has quoted from that video, but not a single line of what Gaur has said in the statement actually happened,” said Chedda, who describes himself as a supporter of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“In fact, there was nothing that Faruqui said that day, in his short act, that was religious at all,” said Chedda. “He kept the jokes very breezy.”
Anshuman Srivastava, Faruqui’s lawyer, was not available for comment. A friend of Faruqui, a lawyer who is involved in planning his legal strategy, said that the police had “vitiated” the bail hearing.
“A bail hearing is not a trial,” said the lawyer. “The police cannot present the statement of the complainants as evidence in the bail hearing because the complainant would obviously not objectively describe the setting.”
“This should be done at the trial stage, where evidence is presented and counter-argued against, not during a bail hearing,” said the lawyer.
The 28 January rejection of bail now means that the other four accused might also continue in jail. Khan’s lawyer, Nasir Khan, had told Article 14 that since their cases were linked to the same event, relief for one would have meant relief for the remaining accused as well.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)