Kunal Kamra did nothing wrong by heckling Arnab Goswami, even though it isn't a significant act of subversion
Kunal Kamra vs Arnab Goswami: The bar for 'unacceptable behaviour' depends on which side of the establishment you're on
Correction: This article previously incorrectly reported that Ravinder Gaikwad is a Bharatiya Janata Party leader. He is the member of Shiv Sena. The error has been corrected.
"Be human" was a kind of refrain that comedian Kunal Kamra used during his heckling of Republic TV boss Arnab Goswami, easily India's most infamous journalist.
During Kamra's relentless on-camera grilling, Goswami kept mum, earphones in place, clearly waiting for the comedian to retreat. Instead, Kamra kept grilling Goswami about his coverage of Rohith Vemula's death (among other things), wherein he questioned which caste that Rohith and his mother Radhika belonged to (to call this in exceedingly poor taste would be a massive understatement). Read Rohith's suicide letter, he urged Goswami, and for once in your life, be human.
There are those within the journalistic fraternity who think that Kamra's tactics were unacceptable, that he crossed a line even if his intentions were noble. NDTV veteran Nidhi Razdan is one of them, for example — last night, she tweeted that even if one does not agree with Arnab's journalism (and she doesn't), what Kamra did was wrong.
It seems that Razdan and co. have imagined an India where every journalist has a code of conduct/ethics they swear by. In this utopia, there are no journalists like Arnab (or Sudhir Chaudhary, or Deepak Chaurasia), who routinely use any tactics available in order to prop up the ruling party's political agenda.
There is no blatant peddling of lies and half-truths, none of the rampant casteism, misogyny and Islamophobia that have become a signature of India's newsrooms, television journalism in particular. There's no news agency whose boss literally uses his picture with the Prime Minister as a Twitter display image (nothing says 'anti-establishment' like social media preening with the very politician you are — theoretically — tasked with critiquing).
In this fictional India that Kamra’s critics live in, the Prime Minister actually turns up at unscripted press conferences (instead of cringe-worthy TV/radio inanities like Mann Ki Baat and Chai Pe Charcha). Ergo, there's no need for mega movie stars who conduct softball "interviews" with the Prime Minister, packed to the gills with questions we all needed answered, such as whether the Hon. PM likes mangoes.
But as we all know circa 2020, the real-world India is far, far away from the genteel utopia that Razdan and co. clearly think it still is. In the real India, Kamra not only finds himself barred from Indigo flights for six months — Air India has also, in a bizarre turn of events, banned Kamra for the same duration. In the real India, meanwhile, the bar for “unacceptable behavior” is somehow both dizzyingly high and shockingly low.
“Dizzyingly high” goes for the likes of Pragya Thakur, the BJP MP who recently held up a SpiceJet flight for 45 whole minutes (contrast it with Kamra’s heinous offence, done and dusted in 2-3 minutes), refusing to move from the flight’s emergency seat despite being repeatedly requested to do so by the SpiceJet crew. Or for Ravinder Gaikwad, the Shiv Sena leader who hit an Air India employee with a slipper 25 times, as recently as 2017 — he was grounded for a grand total of 2 weeks, and he never even apologised to the person he beat up. Gaikwad’s air travel ban was removed because the central government ordered Air India to do so. That this incident is barely even remarked upon these days speaks volumes about how we’ve normalised the “rules are different for the powerful” routine in India.
The “shockingly low” bar for unacceptable behavior, of course, is reserved for critics of the Modi government, like Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, who was recently arrested for the unforgiveable crime of being a vocal, charismatic Bahujan leader, going to a public place in our country’s capital and reading the Preamble of the Constitution. (Imagine if all of us started reading the Constitution daily — the mind boggles at the scale of the ensuing national security crisis.)
This is why I find nothing wrong with what Kamra did. Was it revolutionary, or an especially significant act of subversion? Probably not, in my opinion — you may beg to differ. But it is simply naïve to expect that an Arnab Goswami can simply keep on being an uncritical, lying, manipulative cheerleader of the worst kinds of governmental overreach — and yet face no social costs whatsoever.
In America, a key member of the Trump administration (and let’s face it, in clout terms Goswami is probably equivalent to a junior Cabinet Minister) was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant in 2018, after the owner recognised the staffer (former White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders) by face.
We live in a country where young Dalits are beaten up or even killed for the slightest displays of assertiveness or pride — wearing a wristwatch, riding a horse, keeping a moustache, the list goes on. The news reports are circulated, nobody really faces any accountability for the crimes, and the stories are forgotten within a month — this is nothing new that I’m pointing out here. This is something that happens all the time.
So if you’re Indian and you think that Kamra ought to be punished for his decibel levels, or the fact that he recorded the encounter, or that classic all-sideism argument, “nobody deserves this”, there’s something broken inside of you, something probably atrophied by years of Arnab Goswami’s brand of journalism.
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