Munawwar Faaroqui, in his own words
The comedian speaks up about being censored, being jailed, and giving up.
On the 27th of November, Indian stand-up comedian Munawwar Faruqi posted a note on Instagram saying that he was done. Faaroqui was jailed for 37 days in January 2021 for a joke he did not tell; he was also accused of hurting Hindus with jokes in a country where Islamophobia is glamourised in our big-screen movies. On Saturday, Faruqi’s upcoming set was cancelled, the 12th in a row after the state police said they would not provide protection to him. Faruqi’s story is the story of a Muslim public voice in India being systematically silenced; he writes here of hope and despair, on the personal and the political and most importantly, being Muslim.
By Munawwar Faaroqui (as told to Aastha D.)
People often ask me, “Why would you knowingly dabble in political commentary? There are tons of things you can make jokes about; don’t you worry about being targeted as a Muslim?”
The short answer is I don’t specifically do political comedy, unless all art is political. The long answer is, I would have stopped if my comedy hadn’t worked, if people hadn’t responded with laughter and applause, if 15 million people hadn’t watched me. Clearly, there is an audience that likes and appreciates my work, and I see nothing wrong with putting my opinion as a joke. I don’t instigate hate. It’s my art form, I am using it to express myself. But, to be honest, I am now exhausted.
2 saal se mahaul aisa ban gaya hai ki (The Indian landscape has become steadily more intolerant in the past two years). People have gone insane and outrage is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When I go on twitter or Instagram, dil baith jaata ha (the heart sinks).
I don’t want to believe people when they scream about my identity. I don’t like them calling me a ‘Muslim stand-up comedian’. Indian comedian, sure, why Muslim? If people target me for my religion, I don’t want to validate them, and I don’t wish to believe it. I can take it with a pinch of salt, and I have to, because this has been happening for ages. Legitimizing it only makes it worse. Because Log toh pagal ho hi chuke hai (People have completely lost their minds. I don’t have to as well).
Changing the subject to Hindu-Muslim discord is the easiest thing in India—it’s the most reactionary thing to do, and also the least imaginative. If I start believing this rhetoric, and validating this accusation, not only will it spiral out of control endlessly, there are tons of Muslims who would not approve, be hurt, and want to retaliate. It does seem like people are addicted to conflict and ‘keeping Muslims in line’, whatever that means.
In the last two months, 12 of my shows (all sold-out) have been cancelled. The threats have been extreme, persistent and chilling. Organisers of venues have been threatened over phone and in person: “500 of us will set ourselves on fire.” “We will destroy and burn your venue to the ground.” “We will disrupt the show and beat up the audience.” Among organisers is a 65 year old woman, the owner of a venue, who was intimidated, abused and mishandled in person. The security and maintenance staff of her venue were beaten up to demonstrate the extremists’ point. I pulled out, obviously, my comedy is not more valuable than the lives of people, especially the already disadvantaged. Yesterday my shows in Bengaluru were called off because the police decided I was a “controversial figure and prone to creating a law and order issue.”
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Up until yesterday, I would have said, “If you wish to criticize me, I suggest you hit me where it would actually hurt: my work, my comedy. It makes sense to opine on my jokes, not my identity and faith. If I start to respond to attacks on my identity, it will limit my personhood to me being a Muslim, and worse, it will undermine my work as a comedian, drown my jokes in the noise of hatred. It will stoke a long, raging fire, and end in chaos and destruction. The bottom line being this: I love my work. I am a very secure person, my confidence in myself is very resilient and I have the yakeen (faith) that I will flourish as a comedian.” Today, my comedy has been judged despicable, a weapon, and the retaliations to this nonexistent problem have been extreme. Today, I am done. Today, I say no more of this. This has been my time, folks.
When I first got arrested, I was perplexed and amused, honestly. “What is going on? Like, what did I do, or say?.” A clip from YouTube was cropped, misconstrued and broadcast out of context (as is the norm) and the 15 second video was perfectly crafted to outrage and sow communal discord. Because I knew I had no intention of talking about religion, I saw no need to respond to the outrage or to explain, especially not by changing my script. That landed me in jail.
When I entered prison, I wanted to turn around and flee. I thought, “There is no way I will last even an hour in this place.” Turns out I had to last 37 days. 37 days of waiting, and not knowing. 37 days of being kept in the dark, my bail rejected for no legitimate reason. 37 days of isolation because someone decided their whim was more important than my fundamental rights as a citizen of India.
Waiting is hard, whether it is for 5 minutes or five years. What makes it harder is not knowing how long you have to wait, and that is precisely where I was. I kept thinking I would be let out any minute now, that someone would call me and admit they had made a mistake and that I was innocent, and let me go. Those minutes turned into 37 days. Passing time is the one thing you have to do in jail, and the hardest thing to do in jail is passing time.
I would pace a lot. I would keep walking on the cold stone floor in my bare feet. My soles became callused and hardened. But walking kept me calm, made me feel like I was doing something, and helped keep my thoughts from spiraling. I would tire myself out by walking and imagine it had been 6 hours, only to look up at the watch and realize it had just been 2. That would hit me hard. It was as absurd as it was unsettling.
The time there haunts me. Even when I am in a good place, I find myself seeing flashes of memories, the fear, and uncertainty that enveloped me in my time there. I try to put things in perspective and tell myself every other person in India is depressed, with their own battles to fight. Sab ki jung alag hai, upar waala aapko sirf utni hi taqleef deta hai jitni aap bardasht kar sako. Ho sakta hai upar waale ne mujhe yeh bardasht karne ke layak banaya hai. (Every person’s battle is unique. I believe the Almighty gives you the precise amount of anguish that you are capable of withstanding without breaking. Perhaps God decided he had made me resilient enough to endure this ordeal. )
The thought gives me some peace and assurance. Misdirected souls continue to test my resilience, and it seems like they have triumphed today. Congratulations, you have silenced laughter because your fragile sense of your own Gods, your own faith, was threatened.
Through these rough days I have experienced all kinds of solidarity from the comedy community. Those who can are supportive in public, and those who can’t are there for me in private. The thing about the community is that it is made up of very self-aware and ethical people, who have a keen sense of right and wrong.
My life is a story, and this episode is a very rich one. I did what I know best how to do with this incident: I turned it into satire, a comedy set that was to launch in a few weeks. I would have talked about everything that happens in jail; the waiting, the anticipation, the conversations, the movements, the intimidations, the fear, the doubt, the sleeping, the pacing… the absurdity of it all was in my show, where my jokes contained my insights, emotions, fears and observations. My craft kept me alive and sane in that tiny cell for 37 days. Today, the venom of a few has been enough to drive me to a breaking point. The story will probably never reach you, as another toxic narrative about me takes over and colours the truth.
Namaaz, dua, yeh hamesha pareshaniyon se door le jaati hai, dil ko bahut sukoon deti hai. (Prayer and invocation, they keep grief and upheavals at bay, giving your heart some tranquility and a balm to your wounds.)
The other thing that keeps me going is that strangers have come up to me and embraced me. It isn’t for my comedy or wit, their eyes say: It is in solidarity, love and brotherhood, and that is priceless. It gives me hope and makes all the tumult worth it. It strengthens me and makes me believe all pain can be overcome when I am surrounded by beautiful humans. It is very humbling and encouraging. That, coupled with my faith in Allah, is more than enough to keep me fighting.
Mujhe afsos logo se hai, naraaz mai kisi se nahi hun. Mai nafrat kisi se nahi karta, usse zindagi mushkil ho jaati hai. Us insaan ko khush dekh kar jalna padta, uski taqleef mein khush hona padta hai, jo tumhe ek kharab insaan banata hai. Mai nafrat nahi karta, shayad isliye mai khush rehta hun.
(I am disappointed in people, not angry. Just dejected and exasperated. I do not know how to hate. It makes life very difficult; one has to find joy in someone else’s pain, and in that lose one’s own humanity. That is probably why I stay relatively happy.)
But the commitment of the right wing to loathe me and make a spectacle of their loathing has triumphed. Congratulations. It is one thing to make me a scapegoat for a larger message, it is another to repeatedly slaughter me, mince me, make an example of me. I refuse to participate any more. Congratulations, you have killed some joy and humour. Congratulations, you have murdered democracy and freedom, the two biggest threats to flimsy ideologies so easily frightened by delight and laughter.
My dear hate mongering trolls,
Dar aisi cheez hai jo zyaada din nahi chalti. Ek daraavni film tum pehli baar dekh kar bhale hi dar jao, teen baar dekhoge toh nahi daroge. Jis cheez se tum bachpan mein darte the, usse bade ho kar nahi daroge. Dar ka aisa hai, ki jo log aapse darenge who aapki izzat nahi karenge, jo nahi darenge who aapko bewakoof samjhenge, jise bilkul bhi fark nahi padta who has ke chal dega. Mere kaam bhi logo ko hasana hi hai.
(Fear is a sentiment that does not last long. It is inherently unsustainable. When you watch a horror film, you may be terrified the first time, the third time however it will cease to spark any fear in you. It might even seem silly and funny then. Similarly, we outgrow so many fears that fester in our childhood. Fear is a phenomenon that makes people either not respect you, render you a fool, or laugh at you. I study laughter very closely, and soon enough it will be my time to chuckle. )
Until then, Allah hafiz, goodbye.
Na Insafi Mubarak ho. (My salute to your devotion to injustice.)