Munawar Faruqi had not even started his set at the Munroe Café in Indore on January 1 when he and another stand-up comic were arrested, alongside two of the event’s organisers, for violating India ’s colonial era anti-blasphemy laws. The 28-year-old Muslim comedian was accused of “intent” to outrage religious sentiments by Aklavya Gaur, a Hindu nationalist activist and son of the city’s mayor. Moments before Faruqi’s arrest – and only seconds after he took to the stage – Gaur had burst into the venue and began shouting that the show was “cancelled”, according to eyewitnesses. “Munawar was interrupted even before he could start performing,” said 22-year-old audience member G Jen Agnes K, who has since received death threats for speaking out in support of the comic online. “As soon as he got the spotlight Aklavya Gaur interrupted him.” Gaur – whose mother Malini is a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as well as being Indore’s mayor – is himself convenor of Hind Rakshak Sangathan, a non-profit organisation founded in 1998 with the express intention of defending the “Hindu nation, religion and culture”. Faruqi’s January detention was not the first time he had been targeted. A hashtag calling for his arrest trended on Indian Twitter in April last year after an earlier police complaint was filed in Mumbai. That complaint, which accused the comic of poking fun at Hindu deities, related to a joke he told about a song from the 1995 Bollywood film Yaraana referencing the god Ram. Saad Sheikh, a long-time friend of Faruqi, said the backlash over that joke had caused the comic to question himself. “He would ask ‘are these jokes really insensitive … are these jokes really offensive?”’ Sheikh said. It was at this time that Faruqi also grew wary of social media – deactivating his Twitter account and setting his Instagram to private. Gujarat riots: ‘They raped me and butchered my child because we were Muslims’ Born in Gujarat – the site of communal riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead in 2002 while Modi was still the state’s chief minister – Faruqi had “always wanted to do something big” with his life, a close family friend told This Week In Asia . After his mother died when he was just 13 years old, he was sent to live in Mumbai where he began working 13-hour shifts in a utensils shop for as little as 60 rupees (about US$1) per day – much of which he had to send home to support his impoverished father and three sisters. As time wore on, he found other employment – showing a “go-getter” attitude from an early age, according to Sheikh, who alongside other Mumbai friends helped Faruqi raise the funds he needed to take a course in graphic design that he would later parlay into a full-time role as a designer. It was not until 2014 that he began pursuing a career in comedy, which was largely the preserve of upper-class Hindus at the time. With hard work, persistence and a stable of jokes that mainly focused on his background and lived experience – including making light of “surviving” his upbringing in Gujarat – the young comic slowly built up a dedicated following that has enabled him to book sell-out gigs across India in recent years. Sheikh said Faruqi was “one of the few non A-listers in comedy who draws that kind of audience loyalty”, adding that his friend saw comedy as a means of spreading laughter while earning a decent living. Since the death of his father in February last year, Faruqi has had the added responsibility of providing for his sisters’ education and wedding dowries – obligations Sheikh said only drove the young comedian to work harder. This was also the case when he failed to secure a place on the Amazon show Comicstaan, a televised competition for Indian stand-up comedians. Rather than be downhearted by the rejection, Faruqi doubled down on uploading videos of his performances to YouTube, Sheikh said. Modi’s surgical strike on Muslims puts India at war with itself Following his arrest, Faruqi was jailed for 38 days, despite the lack of evidence against him. Indore Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri admitted as much in January, when he told local media the comedian was detained solely on the basis of Gaur’s complaint. His applications for bail were repeatedly denied by the city’s district court and again by the high court of Madhya Pradesh state, where Indore is located. The judge at one hearing reportedly told police to treat Faruqi in a way that would “make him think twice” about making fun of Hindu deities, while another was cited as saying “such people must be taught a lesson”. It was not until the Supreme Court intervened on February 2 that Faruqi was eventually granted “interim” bail pending a decision on his main bail application, with the justices calling the initial police report into the case “vague”. Even then, Indore authorities refused to release the comedian, saying they had “received no communication” of the Supreme Court’s order – despite it being widely publicised and published on the court’s website. Faruqi was eventually released in the early hours of the following morning, after a Supreme Court justice called the jail where he was being held at around midnight to personally inform the guards of the order. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Munawar Faruqui (@munawar.faruqui) Faruqi has refused to give interviews about his case on the advice of his lawyers. “I don’t want to give any interviews because if I do people will think that I am stuck in that zone. I just want people to get content from me. That’s it,” he said. Through Sheikh, Faruqi told This Week In Asia that he had said all he wanted to say in a short video published on his YouTube channel days after his release on bail. “I never wanted to hurt anyone, or even be famous,” he said in the 10-minute video titled Munawar Faruqi Leaving Comedy. “I wanted to make people laugh”. “None of my jokes are written to offend anyone. Whenever every content creator creates content, they want it to be liked, watched and accepted as much as possible,” he said, adding that he would “like to apologise about the typo” in the video title which “should” read Munawar Faruqi “living” comedy as he “can’t quit comedy because comedy has kept me alive”. The young comic has retained his sense of humour throughout the ordeal – even telling a follower on Instagram that the only difference between being jailed and being in coronavirus lockdown was that in jail he was not allowed to bang pots and pans, as Modi had encouraged Indians to do in March last year as a show of support for doctors, nurses and other frontline workers amid the pandemic. Faruqi may be free, for now, but the case against him still stands. He has petitioned the Supreme Court for all the charges against him to be dropped, but no date has yet been set for a hearing. Late last month, the three men arrested alongside Faruqi, including fellow comedian Nalin Yadav, were also released on interim bail. A fourth, Sadakat Khan – who sources said was arrested the day afterwards despite not being mentioned in the initial police complaint – is also out on bail. In a show of support, more than 100 prominent Indians, including members of the diaspora, signed an open letter last month calling for all the charges against Faruqi and his co-accused to be dropped. “As artists and concerned individuals, we are alarmed that in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy, a stand-up artist was imprisoned for over a month, and faces serious criminal charges, for no crime,” said the statement, which was signed by historian Rajmohan Gandhi, author Arundhati Roy, stand-up comic Kunal Kamra and actresses Swara Bhaskar and Pooja Bhatt, among 105 others.