By Geeta Seshu

The Bengaluru police action that resulted in the cancellation of comedian Munawar Faruqui’s show in the city is shameful. More than just a caving in to right-wing pressure, it is a clear abrogation of the duty of the police to uphold law and order.

On Sunday, Nov 28, Faruqui was slated to perform at the Good Shepherd auditorium in Bengaluru when Ashok Nagar police wrote to Curtain Call events, the organisers of the show, ‘suggesting’ that they cancel the show. The police said that there was credible information that several organisations opposed the show of the stand up comedian.

Bengaluru police letter to organisers of the
Munawar Faruqui show

One can only imagine the plight of Munawar Faruqui, who spent a month and five days in a jail in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, at the beginning of the year, gamely trying to continue staging his shows even after, only to find himself facing cancellation after cancellation – 12 in all!

Much like Perumal Murugan announced his death as a writer on Fcebook in 2015, a frustrated Faruqui posted a tweet saying ‘I think this is the end” and that he was “done” :

Barely a day later, came news that comedian Kunal Kamra’s show was also cancelled. Kamra went a step further to outline the entire manner in which a show can be cancelled:

A report in The Times of India quoting an unnamed senior oficer said that the show had not been granted permission but Faruqui claimed it had been given a ‘censor’ certificate – presumably referring to the process by which a script of the show is submitted for prior approval. In any case, the entire mechanism of censorship for theatre performances is highly questionable and differs from state to state. In 2016, as this comprehensive report in the Hindustan Times states, the rules framed under provisions of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, which make pre-censorship of drama scripts mandatory by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board, was challenged by actor Amol Palekar in the Bombay High Court.

Invariably, in all these instances, the police have cited fears of “chaos” and disturbances to “peace and harmony that could cause further law and order problems” instead of supporting and protecting the comedian as well as the people who purchased tickets to see his show. The rights of an audience to watch a show that they had obviously chosen to do so – as adults in a democratic country, prepared to laugh and maybe, be a bit shocked too – simply don’t seem to exist any more.

Besides, the police is mandated to preserve law and order and provide protection for the fundamental right to freedom of expression. There are multiple judgements of various High Courts and of the Supreme Court of India to assert this. Whether it was the Vishwaroopam case, when the Tamil Nadu government cited the very same reasons to ban the film in 2013, the release of the film Padmavat or even the latest instance of the film Bhobishyoter Bhut when the Supreme Court order in 2019 affirmed the right to free speech: “Protection of the freedom of speech is founded on the belief that speech is worth defending even when certain individuals may not agree with or even despise what is being spoken. This principle is at the heart of democracy, a basic human right, and its protection is a mark of a civilised and tolerant society.”

Clearly, the apex court is cognizant of the pressures of vigilante groups: “Contemporary events reveal that there is a growing intolerance: intolerance which is unaccepting of the rights of others in society to freely espouse their views and to portray them in print, in the theatre or in the celluloid media. Organised groups and interests pose a serious danger to the existence of the right to free speech and expression. If the right of the playwright, artist, musician or actor were to be subjected to popular notions of what is or is not acceptable, the right itself and its guarantee under the Constitution would be rendered illusory.”

That’s when the government is expected to step in to protect the rights of those who do want to watch the film read the book or see the show.

Of course, despite court orders, either fuels the fire against it or blatantly fails to do so. A classic example is the the ban on Shivaji Maharaj: Hindu King in Islamic India, the book by James Laine, when the Supreme Court confirmed a Bombay High Court order to lift the ban on the book in 2010. In 2003, there was a shameful attack by political groups associated with the Shiv Sena and the Sambhaji Brigade on scholars of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and ransacking and burning of books in its library. But, 14 years later, on October 28, 2017, all 68 accused were acquitted by a Pune sessions court on grounds that evidence on record was insufficient for a conviction on any of the charges, which included unlawful assembly, rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, damaging public property and criminal conspiracy. The book itself can still not be sold openly in bookshops in Maharashtra.

In another time, with a more responsive government, it was possible. The controversy over the release of the Shahrukh Khan-starrer ‘My name is Khan” is a case in point. In 2010, the Shiv Sena threatened to disallow the screening of the film because the actor, the co-owner of Kolkata Knight Riders, an IPL franchise, favoured the inclusion of Pakistani cricketers for the tournament’s third season. But police protection for cine-goers was assured and provided for and the film screenings were held.

Ten years later, we are back to square zero.

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