Artists say India is becoming an intolerant country
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 Muslim hardliners 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 percent 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 state.
“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.”