What Bollywood could learn from Munawar Faruqui
They have failed to uphold the spirit of the [the] constitution” — not my words, but those of Justice Deepak Gupta. In conversations with me, both Justice Gupta and Justice Madan Lokur have expressed dismay and anger at the abject surrender on free speech principles by their brethren in the Indian judiciary.
We were talking about the interventions of the courts in Madhya Pradesh and Allahabad in the arrest of Munawar Faruqui and the denial of pre-arrest bail to Amazon executive, Aparna Purohit, for the web series Tandav, respectively. I only half-joked, when I quipped to the two retired justices of the Supreme Court, that they could not be hauled up for contempt, but I sure would be.
The Allahabad High Court goes so far as to list the Hindi movies it argues has hurt Hindu sentiments. And as Justice Gupta argues, irrespective of whether you are a free speech absolutist or not, in his view, the verdict — which denied bail to Purohit, despite her unconditional apology and deletion of the offending scenes — “does not make sense on any point of law”.
The real challenge to upholding India’s freedoms is how patchy and individual-driven it is when it comes to the judiciary. The system is so arranged that instead of legal precedent and case law setting the template for the court’s interventions, the idea of justice is guided by what Judge A or Judge B may think.
So, Justice Dhananjay Y Chandrachud reminded us of the 1970s Krishna Iyer diktat on “bail not jail” as the desired guiding principle while adjudicating on personal liberty in the Arnab Goswami case. Justice Rohinton Nariman took less time than the turn of a minute on the clock in giving bail to Faruqui. But the same court behaved differently in the case of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, who has now been in lock-up for close to 150 days. Admittedly, the charges against Kappan are framed under an anti-terror act, making it a less simple case than the other two. But the bail not jail dictum should still hold true.
The process of seeking justice cannot be so dependent on which court your case ends up in. So, Judge Dharmendra Rana called out the sedition law and the “wounded vanities” of the powerful while allowing climate activist Disha Ravi to walk out on bail. The exact same case could have had a different outcome had it been heard by someone else.
The unpredictability of the courts aside, the reluctance of the film industry to stand up for itself is even more disappointing. How does one stand in solidarity with those who won’t fight for themselves? The makers of Tandav apologised, not once but twice, thereby effectively accepting the accusation that the content was offensive to Hindus. The muted, fearful response in the film industry — apart from a handful of usual suspects — does not help its cause. There were stirrings of a collective response when producers gathered to take on the slanderous and vile television coverage of Bollywood during the Rhea Chakraborty trial. But now it appears to have been akin to a gasping attempt to come up for air whilst drowning.
India’s biggest actors may want to take a life-lesson from Faruqui, the 29-year-old stand-up comic who spent 37 days in jail. It’s not as if his spirit has not been damaged. “Jail takes away your sense of self-respect,” Faruqui told me, “I kept thinking, what have I done to be here? Have I killed someone?” He revealed that he now takes sleeping pills every night since his release and those don’t help either.
Yet, Faruqui, whose father was paralysed for 10 years and whose mother died last year, had found salvation and hope, economic and professional in comedy. “I will not give up on making people laugh,” he told me, “I am not leaving comedy, I am living it.”
There appeared to be neither rancour nor resignation in him; just a desire to put together the broken pieces of his life, with the same energy with which he once discovered, by pure accident, what an Open Mic is. Without either the wealth and connections or profile of India’s film industry, Faruqui has shown more courage and almost zero cynicism. It doesn’t matter if you found his jokes funny or not — the jail-time he was subjected to was an abomination.
This has been a patchy, roller-coaster of a fortnight for India’s fundamental freedoms. It has been held together by the interventions and doggedness of a few good men (and women). And sometimes that’s all it takes.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal