A comedian heckles a “nationalist” news anchor—and riles the Indian government

Shut up ya Kunal!
Shut up ya Kunal!
Image: Screengrab from YouTube
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This post has been updated.

India’s Narendra Modi dispensation has sought a flying ban on a comedian for heckling an arguably pro-government television news anchor on a flight.

Yesterday (Jan. 28), standup comic Kunal Kamra tweeted a 1.51-minute video of him accosting Republic TV editor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami, during a Mumbai-Lucknow IndiGo flight.

Soon after the video went viral, the airline, through its Twitter account, said it has suspended Kamra from flying with it for six months. However, IndiGo didn’t mention if there was a complaint against Kamra.

The Modi government, though, didn’t allow the matter to rest there. Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted condemning Kamra’s behaviour, and “advised” other airlines to follow suit.

State-owned carrier Air India was quick to comply.

The airline, saddled with a Rs60,000 crore ($8.42 billion) loss and due for divestment, said it is putting Kamra in its no-fly list until further notification. The comedian’s response to Air India’s move was trademark.

Today (Jan. 29), SpiceJet followed suit by suspending Kamra from flying the domestic carrier until further notice.

Later in the day, domestic carrier GoAir, too, issued a similar statement against the standup artiste.

Fearless or coarse comedian?

Kamra is known for his blunt anti-government commentary in his shows. He had campaigned for Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student leader-turned-politician Kanhaiya Kumar in the 2019 general election.

Aboard the IndiGo flight, Kamra made a reference to the mother of Rohith Vemula, a Hyderabad university student who committed suicide in January 2016 after being suspended for raising issues against university authorities. Kamra accused Goswami of victimising Vemula and his family over their status as Dalits. Along with his video post, Kamra wrote: “I did this for my hero…I did it for Rohit.”

In a statement shared later on Twitter, Kamra said he didn’t regret what happened.

Twitter seems divided over the incident. While some applauded the comedian and blamed the government for overreacting, others criticised him for breaching the journalist’s privacy.

The “not-so calm” journalist

Arnab Goswami, who kept silent throughout Kamra’s video is best known for his right-wing views and has often been criticised widely for his brand of journalism that involves Republic TV reporters heckling all and sundry, allegedly biased debates, and the anchor’s own long and vitriolic monologues.

Amit Malviya, the IT head and spokesperson of the BJP, the party Goswami seemingly favours, has in the past accused the senior journalist of treating his panellists with unruly aggression.

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, often at the receiving end of Goswami’s “journalism,” said, “The truth is that it was time someone gave him (Goswami) a taste of his own medicine.”

However, many did not seem to agree with Tharoor’s view.

Government over-reacting?

Be that as it may, it is the direct intervention by the government itself that has jarred with many.

Minister Puri’s call to ban Kamra from flying saw some accusing the government of ignoring similar “unruly behaviour” of a BJP parliamentarian.

In December, Pragya Thakur, a terror accused and a BJP parliamentarian from Bhopal, was locked in an argument on seat allotment with passengers on-board a SpiceJet flight.