New Delhi: A comedian jailed for a joke he did not tell, threats against theatre directors and a religious backlash to a blockbuster TV drama have left India’s arts community fearing a rising nationalist assault on free speech.
Artists, writers and satirists are facing criminal charges and warnings of violence for touching on religious issues, leaving performers to wonder whether India is being led away from its secular roots.
Even pop idol Rihanna recently sparked a social media storm by wearing a pendant of Ganesh, one of the country’s most revered deities, in a topless photo.
Comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for more than a month after he was hounded at a gig in the central city of Indore. A Hindu fringe group activist began accusing the 30-year-old of intending to insult Hindu gods just as he took the stage.
Faruqui, a Muslim, is known for hitting sensitive topics in his humour, including deadly religious riots in Gujarat state when Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister there nearly two decades ago. He defended himself by pointing to his track record of ridiculing Islam as well, and an audience member told AFP the comedian was polite throughout the encounter.
But his heckler was not appeased, and instead went to fetch the police who detained Faruqui and four others. His three bail applications were rejected — with one lower court commenting that “religious feelings had been outraged” — before the Supreme Court ordered his provisional release. In a video he posted after he left jail, Faruqui said he had been “affected by something I didn’t do.”
Faruqui said he became a comedian to make people happy but lamented that a “sheep mindset can ruin someone’s life”.
Religion has always been a sensitive topic in the country of 1.3 billion people — 80 per cent of them Hindu — but Modi’s two huge election wins since 2014 have empowered his hardcore followers. Many believe that there should be curbs on freedom of speech to prevent religious insults.
“Don’t you feel bad if anyone offends your God?” asked Prakash Sharma, an outspoken senior member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh.
“Right now society is sleeping and it is tolerating this. Their children will beat them up in their own homes if they don’t mend their ways,” he told AFP. And while comics have backed Faruqui, they are wary of coming under the crosshairs themselves.
“You have to be sensitive about content because it’s very clear India is becoming intolerant,” comedian Samil Shah told AFP. “You can’t go about offending the majority.”
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan said the backlash against comics was strange when there had always been a strong comedy element to Indian folklore and cinema. “Democracy is supposed to be happily quarrelsome and relaxed about the quarrel,” he told AFP. Other members of the country’s entertainment community have found themselves in the firing line.
A theatre festival in central India was cancelled when a right-wing group threatened “aggressive protests” to stop the event, after objecting to the title of two plays. One had committed the sin of using the words “caste” and “saint” together, which was considered an affront to the dignity of Hindu deities.
“Our posters came back to us with circles around these titles and soon phone calls followed,” said Shantanu Pandey, who was to direct a play at the festival.
Web giant Amazon’s streaming service also came under fire when its political drama, “Tandav”, was accused by hardliners of depicting Hindu gods in a negative light. The company soon issued an unconditional apology and edited or dropped the scenes that stirred the controversy.
Modi’s government has signalled that it will extend legal cover to the campaign against religious offence. It has announced new rules that may force social media and digital platforms to take down content within 36 hours of a complaint being made.
Meenakshi Ganguli of Human Rights Watch said the government and its partisans had abetted a cultural clampdown that had fostered a “chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.” “Sadly, in many cases, the authorities have not just failed to act against violent government supporters, but have targeted peaceful critics,” she added.