By Rhea Mogul, CNN
This time last year Nalin Yadav was detained in an Indian prison, not knowing when he would be let out.
“I didn’t understand how or why this happened to me,” said the 26-year-old stand-up comedian, who spent almost two months behind bars. “I couldn’t sleep or eat. I had anxiety attacks. My mind wouldn’t stop racing.”
His alleged crime? Organizing and opening a show for a comic he says he had met just five minutes earlier — a Muslim comedian accused of telling jokes that insulted the Hindu faith.
He and four others have pleaded not guilty over allegedly hurting and outraging religious sentiment during a comedy show last January. They are still awaiting trial for the charges and face three years in prison if convicted.
While comedy can be polarizing all over the world, in India telling jokes about Hinduism or being associated with someone who insults the majority faith can be enough to prompt legal action.
Experts say India’s colonial-era laws are being used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to quash criticism and encourage self-censorship.
At the same time, authorities have been accused of turning a blind eye to vitriolic comments from right-wing extremist groups who align with the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist agenda.
Yadav is one of a growing list of journalists, activists, and entertainers who have become caught up in the country’s crackdown on freedom of expression.
The problem is, the comedian — who is Hindu — says he didn’t even mention Hinduism that night.
January 1, 2021, was meant to be a career highlight for Yadav.
As a relative newcomer to the scene, he was opening the show for the more experienced Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui in Indore, a city in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh.
Yadav said he told a few jokes about sex and Indian society, then settled back to watch Faruqui’s act.
But Eklavya Singh Gaur, the son of the BJP mayor of Indore, and a member of the right-wing group Hindu Protection Congregation, walked onto the stage and accused Faruqui of insulting Hindu gods.
In a widely circulated video of the incident, Faruqui can be heard telling Gaur that he also jokes about Muslims and his routine should be taken in jest.
Yadav attempted to mediate by calling the police.
“I thought we’d be safe when the police came,” he told CNN. “I wanted to protect Munawar. I never expected what would happened next.”
That night, Gaur and three of his friends each filed complaints with police, accusing Faruqui of telling “filthy and indecent jokes” about Hindu gods and goddesses, according to court documents seen by CNN. The complaint also said that Faruqui told a joke about BJP Home Minister Amit Shah, but no further details were given.
It’s unclear when Faruqui allegedly told the jokes.
In his complaint, Gaur alleges Faruqui said it during his performance, while two of his friends said he told the jokes before his performance began.
These jokes “hurt and outraged” Gaur’s religious sentiment, the documents said.
Yadav and four others, including Faruqui, were arrested early the next morning on charges including “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings” and “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings,” as well as breaking some Covid-19 social distancing rules, court documents show. Breaking Covid rules carries a possible maximum sentence of six months in prison and a fine.
CNN contacted Faruqui’s representatives, but they declined to comment.
After multiple court hearings, Faruqui was released on bail by India’s top court on February 5 after spending 35 days in jail, with the court saying police hadn’t followed proper procedure when arresting him.
But Yadav remained in prison until February 26 when the Madhya Pradesh High Court finally granted his release on bail — after 57 days in prison.
Yadav said his 17-year-old brother paid his bail fees, $1,330, from the money he had saved for his university education — money that they had inherited after their mother died.
“My brother couldn’t go to university,” said Yadav. “He sacrificed so much for me. How can I even look him in the eye?”
Lawyer Anshumaan Shrivastava, who represents Yadav and Faruqui, said the comedians didn’t break the law — and he pointed out that the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression.
CNN contacted the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Justice but did not receive a response.
A free speech crackdown
It’s not just Yadav and Faruqui who have been on the receiving end of legal action.
Several other comedians have angered the country’s ruling politicians. And while in other countries that might be the end of it, in India, some people have pursued the matter with police.
Right-wing activists called for his arrest, while supporters rallied to his defense.
Ashutosh Dubey, a legal adviser to the BJP, accused Das of “defaming” India and filed a complaint with the Mumbai police over Das’ “inflammatory” comments, according to a post he wrote on Twitter.
Das has not been formally charged with any crime and continues to perform. He defended his monologue, writing on Twitter the video was “satire about the duality of two very separate India’s (sic).”
“Like any nation has light and dark, good and evil within it. None of this is a secret,” he said. “I take pride in my country, and I carry that pride across the world.”
In December 2020, the Supreme Court held comedian Kunal Kamra in contempt of court for allegedly disparaging the judiciary and judges in his social media posts. In one Twitter post, he criticized the court’s handling of a case involving a right-wing commentator. If found guilty, Kamra faces up to six months in prison and a fine.
Kamra told CNN he has canceled about 100 shows over the past eight years because of threats by right-wing groups to the venue and audience — and it’s getting worse, he said. India is mostly a right-wing and “humorless society,” he said.
In India, freedom of speech is enshrined in its democratic constitution. But up-and-coming Muslim comedian Parvez Hassan says the country has become more intolerant since Modi’s BJP came to power in 2014.
“It feels like we are going backwards in society,” he said. “There are now fears (among some comedians) of putting content on YouTube, of telling a certain joke in public.”
And the issue goes well beyond comedians. Yadav and Faruqui were charged under a colonial-era law which criminalizes hurting “religious sentiment.” Experts say Modi’s government is using another piece of colonial-era legislation — the country’s sedition law — to silence activists, journalists and other critics.
In 2015, the year after Modi took office, 30 people were charged with sedition, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In 2020, the most recent data available, that number had increased to 73.
Indira Jaising, an Indian human rights lawyer, said laws have been weaponized in India against anyone who disagrees with the government.
“When a society cannot tolerate satire, it’s a society that has lost its constitutional values,” she said, adding the comedians’ case “goes well beyond freedom of speech” and calling it an “infringement” on their right to earn a living.
In January, Rohinton Nariman, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, also hit out at how sedition laws are being used. He said young people, students and stand-up comedians were being booked for criticizing the government, while others were getting away with calling for genocide against Muslims.
He was referring to comments made during a three-day event in the city of Haridwar in December when right-wing Hindus called on their followers to kill Muslims.
“We find great reluctance from some of the authorities to book these people,” Nariman said.
Since his arrest last year, Yadav says his career — and life — has unraveled.
Before the arrest, Yadav was able to make ends meet by performing. But after he was released on bail, he said no one wanted to book him as they feared violence from right-wing groups. Right-wing vigilantes harassed him on the streets, and he could only find work as a laborer, earning a daily wage of $2.60, he said.
Yadav said he hoped that when he was freed from prison, people would see he had been treated unfairly.
“But all my hope faded. I always saw the best in society … but I finally saw the real world.”
Faruqui also took a brief hiatus from comedy after threats were made to his performance venues and audience.
“Hate has won,” he said on Twitter in November. “The artist has lost.”
He has since returned to the stage.
The arrest of comedians is also affecting others in the industry.
Some venues and organizers are canceling shows for fear of backlash and violence.
The LVC Comedy Club in the southern state of Goa canceled Faruqui’s performance in November after a right-wing group threatened to destroy the venue.
A spokesperson for the club, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said the comedy scene in India was becoming “more hostile.”
“We are not political and don’t endorse everything comedians say,” the spokesperson said. “We are free speech advocates and support the right to joke about anything.”
“(But) in a country that reports 77 rapes per day, I’m baffled that jokes are where people choose to be offended.”
In November, Yadav decided to leave Indore to start his comedy career afresh in India’s capital Delhi.
“It is ironic that comedy — the one thing that kept me alive and gave me hope — was the same thing that took everything from me,” Yadav said.
“But I don’t blame comedy. I will never blame comedy. I blame the system, the government and the state of our society.”
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CNN’s Vedika Sud, Esha Mitra and Manveena Suri contributed reporting