An Indian Comic Spent Over a Month in Jail for Jokes He Didn’t Tell

Munawar Faruqui was granted bail after 34 days in an Indore jail. The Muslim comic was persecuted on the basis of his art—and he isn't the first.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
Munawar Faruqui
Photo via Munawar Faruqui Facebook

The name Munawar Faruqui meant nothing to me until last weekend, when I’d read that the  Muslim comic had been thrown in a Madhya Pradesh jail on January 1, 2021 with four others on suspicion that he might make some jokes about Hinduism. The details of Faruqui’s story will chill any fan of comedy, Indian or otherwise, as the events read as a hyperbolic exaggeration that an American comic might levy at their critics. But it’s a real case of “cancelling,” if that term still means anything besides harsh criticism. 


I don’t speak Hindi, so aside from what’s been translated, I don’t know what Faruqui is saying in his standup that’s on YouTube. But it doesn’t matter what he said or planned to say: a comic should not be thrown in jail, and denied bail, on the basis of a joke, or in Faruqui’s case, on the intent or possibility of telling offensive jokes.

There are few analogues to Faruqui’s case in the United States. There is the famous case of standup pioneer Lenny Bruce, who was arrested for obscenity in 1964 thanks to a prudish law enforcement’s obsession with the comedian. But there aren’t contemporary parallels. There’s John Mulaney’s alleged FBI file following a Saturday Night Live monologue, and Kathy Griffin landing on the no-fly list, with threats from the feds to charge her with conspiring to assassinate the president, after she posed with a fake severed Trump head. But the consequences they faced pale in comparison to what India has done to its comedians. 

The jailing of Faruqui in Indore, a city in a central Indian state, is significant beyond the subcontinent. He’s part of a larger movement of marginalized voices who’ve drawn the ire of the government for criticizing the powerful. Farmers have been protesting bills that will deregulate the agriculture industry since last November in one of the largest protests in history. Journalists have been jailed for reporting on these events. Rachita Taneja, the cartoonist, who made the above Rihanna cartoon, was previously threatened with contempt for their work. M.F. Husain fled India in self-imposed exile in 2006, after facing vicious backlash and threats on his life for depicting Hindu gods in the nude. Like MF DOOM, he died in exile.  


India is ruled by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has coded anti-Muslim discrimination into law in a way that would make the average Republican jealous. In 2019, India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allowed minorities groups a path to citizenship, but conspicuously excludes Muslims. 

“Regarding Muslims, there are countries that were formed exclusively for them,” said a BJP spokesperson, while discussing the act. 

On February 5, the Indian Supreme Court considered Faruqui’s plea for bail, following several previously denied requests. After 34 days of incarceration, Faruqui was granted interim bail. The other four men, Prakhar Vyas, Priyam Vyas, Nalin Yadav, and Edwin Anthony, remain incarcerated. Faruqui is the latest—but not the last—to face attacks from the state on the basis of his work.

On Saturday, South Asian American performers are putting on “The Right to Laugh,” a free online comedy show as a show of solidarity with Munawar Faruqui and other political prisoners. 


“A democracy that seeks to be recognized as a world power can not afford to display a thin skin towards political satire, which is an essential part of public life,” cofounder of U.S.-based nonprofit Hindus for Human Rights (HFHR) Raju Rajagopal said in a statement to VICE. “If the U.S. were to apply similar standards, our jails would be filled with veterans of Saturday Night Live.” HFHR, along with the Reclaiming India coalition and the Progressive India Collective, organized the “Right to Laugh” event. 

In this event, HFHR aims to “to raise awareness about the increasing threat to constitutional rights in India, and also to affirm freedom of speech and expression in a more universal sense,” said cofounder Sunita Viswanath Viswanath has watched Faruqui’s standup, and as a Hindu, she didn’t find anything offensive. She pointed to a recent blog posted by scholar and poet Jyoti Bachani, titled "My Hinduism has a Sense of Humor." 

“Like Jyoti, I too feel at home in, and am propelled by, a Hinduism which affirms fun and jokes, and allows—indeed, prescribes—many ways of being,” Viswanath said.” The Rig Veda says, ‘aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah,’ which means, ‘let noble thoughts come from all directions.’ We are asked to be open-minded and to understand that there are many ways to live, think and be.” 


Viswanath connects Faruqui’s case to broader, bleaker themes in India. “[H]undreds of people are in jail, with bail denied, because they have expressed dissent with the current government. The media and the judicial system are both kowtowing to the government,” The massive protest of India’s farmers, she said, is “being infiltrated and attacked by the government and its supporters.” 

This critical focus on India applies elsewhere, too. And everyone should care. “Religious/ethnic nationalism is not unique to India—it is a zeitgeist of our world," Viswanath said. "Whether it is standing in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers or one Indian comedian who just spent his 30th birthday in jail because of a state which is afraid of laughter, we believe that those in the world who care about justice and democracy need to stand together.” 

Nikhil Mandalaparthy is a volunteer with Hindus for Human Rights and a journalist, who had reported on Hindu-Muslim tensions in India for the Pulitzer Center and other publications. “We don't always see young [South Asian American] people showing up for issues that are happening back in the subcontinent,” he said. “There’s not not a requirement that, as someone in the diaspora, you have to speak up, but the absurdity of this case struck a chord.” 


Mandalaparthy acknowledged the cost of speaking out is much higher in India than it is here; which may be part of why Indian celebrities are largely silent, as a recent Hindustan Times piece claimed. A threat of political and physical violence against dissenters “perpetuates this indifference and lack of attention,” Mandalaparthy said. 

“We’re sitting in our houses here in the U.S., and we do have a degree of privilege—or just safety. Hopefully, no one's going to come and knock on doors and take anyone to jail here.” 

But the South Asian American comedians involved in “The Right to Laugh” felt compelled to speak up. “You see the way standup comics in America were treated way, way back, being charged with obscenity,” said, Rishi Mahesh, a student at Northwestern University, and one of the comedians performing at the event. He wasn’t aware of Faruqui’s situation until he was asked to perform. “That's always been a part of what grows the art form: breaking beliefs and getting people to ask questions, to critically think about contradictions. Stuff I feel is so integral to the art form, it's crazy to hear about this case.” 

Apoorva Gundeti, an actress, writer, improviser, and sketch comedian, sees her performance as an act of solidarity. When she learned of Faruqui’s jailing, she compared it to finding out about one of Trump’s antics, being shocked while also not shocked. “It was the same kind of feeling where I was unfortunately not shocked to hear the news, because these kinds of arrests and attacks on the Muslim population of India are really common,” she said.

“The Muslim community faces so much societal discrimination,” said Yamini Nambimadom, another comedian performing at the event. “[Comedy] should be a freeing way to express yourself and try to feel empowered. And if you can't do that, then what's the point? Jerry Seinfeld did all the grocery store jokes already.”

This article has been updated to include the status of the four men arrested with Munawar Faruqui.