Why Modi govt's decision to ground Kunal Kamra for heckling Arnab Goswami is petty and vindictive

'Look

If you had

One shot

Or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted

In one moment

Would you capture it

Or just let it slip?'

No matter what you think of the Kunal Kamra and Arnab Goswami heckling aboard a plane, one has to admire Kamra's Eminem-esque ability to seize the moment.

For the uninitiated – and the lucky few not on Twitter – so-called comedian Kunal Kamra found himself on the same flight as so-called journalist Arnab Goswami. What ensued was, in Kamra's words, "a monologue about his journalism", that his subject proceeded to ignore.

Now, Kamra and Goswami have a lot more in common than both would care to admit.

They may be on different sides of the playing field, ideologically speaking, but the major chunks of both their professional lives encompass repeating the same thing ad nauseum till anyone with two brain cells to rub together switches channels or hits mute.

Yet, Kamra must be praised for being a living, breathing example of carpe diem – seizing the moment – as he came face to face with his nemesis. He didn’t miss his chance, heckling Goswami and claiming it was for Rohith Vemula, the University of Hyderabad scholar who committed suicide in 2016.

For his part, Arnab Goswami maintained a dignified silence – a sentence one never thought one would ever write – but the knee-jerk reactions from airlines across is deeply troubling.

There are several takeaways from the Kamra-Arnab turbulence.

Kamra – legally and morally wrong

Firstly, the obvious.

Kamra’s actions are wrong – legally and morally. There’s no justification for heckling anyone on a flight and invading an individual’s personal space. One is on a flight, not in Noida where consent is as conspicuous by its absence as auto meters. There’s nothing remotely heroic about randomly shouting at someone on a plane. If Kamra had tried it on an international flight, he’d be in handcuffs faster than one can say bad joke. It’s the sort of behaviour that authorities don't tolerate post 9/11.

This incident isn't a one off. Nor, it would appear is Kamra remorseful about his diatribe. Even as outrage and support poured in, Kamra took to Twitter to say, amongst other things, that "the only damage" he had caused was to "the inflated ego" of Arnab Goswami.

A day after the incident, Goswami and Kamra likely felt a rather unfortunate sense of deja vu after they discovered themselves sharing yet another flight. And in true tradition, Kamra "again asked him politely if he wants to have a honest discussion".

In case you were wondering, Goswami asked him to move away.

Kamra’s hero Rohith?

Secondly, it’s rather hard to believe that Kunal Kamra actually heckled Goswami for his ‘hero Rohith Vemula’.

In case one has forgotten, Vemula was a PhD scholar who killed himself on 17 January, 2016. His death saw Opposition parties blame the BJP-RSS, while the saffron party had accused the Opposition of using his death for petty political gains.

Director Vivek Agnihotri – whose re-imagination of The Usual Suspects still gives us nightmares – claimed that Kamra said during an interview that Rohit Vemula was ‘fair game in politics to beat Modi’.

According to Agnihotri, the conversation went like this:

Kamra: What is the most effective fake news?

Agnihotri: Rohith Vemula

Kamra: I agree but it worked against Modi. And how?

Agnihotri: You’d sell suicide of a student to beat Modi?

Kamra: Why not? It’s all fair in politics.

Incidentally, Kamra who has an active social media presence, has mentioned his ‘hero’ Vemula only twice on Twitter. Once in May 2017 and once in Nov 2018. In fact, he didn’t even have a single tweet on Vemula in the year he passed away.

It’s quite hard to take Kamra’s sudden deification of Vemula seriously. Of course, the world is a stage and Kamra’s well within his rights to do what’s necessary to grab eyeballs as long as it's within the law. One would assume that Kamra keeps his grief private, much like his sense of humour.

The flying ban

Thirdly, the alacrity with which the Indian state has come down on Kamra is deeply disturbing. At the time of writing, Kunal Kamra had already been banned by Indigo, Spicejet, Go Air and Air India.

The alacrity with which airlines moved to ban Kunal Kamra would shock anyone who has travelled by said airlines and waited aeons for their check-in baggage to finally reach the conveyor belt.

What was more troublesome was that the high-handedness came from high up. Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri – a distinguished diplomat in his civil service days – almost demanded a boycott, writing: “Offensive behaviour designed to provoke & create disturbance inside an aircraft is absolutely unacceptable & endangers safety of air travellers. We are left with no option but to advise other airlines to impose similar restrictions on the person concerned.”

How does it behoove the Union Minister to make such a remarkable exception and target an individual who’s deemed unfriendly to the current regime?

This behaviour and sudden move to a no-fly list is even more troubling when one considers that offenders who are legislators got off scot-free. Terror-accused lawmaker Pragya Thakur, for example, delayed a flight over her refusal to switch seats.

Former Lok Sabha MP Ravindra Gaikwad happily exclaimed on live TV that he had hit an Air India staff member 25 times with his slippers. Yet, he was allowed to fly again despite his 'Flight Club' antics which would’ve seen regular people cooling their heels in prison.

But the alacrity in imposing a ban is not the only question. Can a ban be imposed in such a manner in th first place? Well, several things seem to suggest otherwise.

For one, going by the Ministry of Civil Aviation's 2017 directives while initiating a No Fly List, there is a procedure that must be followed. As far as the rules pertain to Kamra, his is a Level 1 offence -- involving as it does 'verbally unruly' behaviour. And while he can be punished with a ban of up to 3 months, the complaint has to be filed by the pilot-in-command and then probed by an internal committee set up by the airline.

In case you were wondering, IndiGo, GoAir and SpiceJet have declared six month bans, while Air India seems to have announced an indefinite ban.

To quote a notice by the Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation, "Pending decision of the Internal Committee, the concerned airline may ban such unruly passenger from flying, but such period may not exceed a period of 30 days."

It is a tad strange that this seems to have slipped the minds of airlines and the Civil Aviation Minister of India.

Following news articles, the DGCA issued a clarification on this topic.

What did Kamra want?

Fourthly, and most importantly, Kamra probably got exactly what he wanted. The entire oxygen of publicity is now on the comedian whose stage just went global. As the erudite blogger and author Arnab Ray noted – as he took a break from battling Twitterati who thought he was Goswami – Kamra probably got what he wanted.

He wrote: “This is *exactly* what he wanted and now he has got it. Arnab did the better thing: ignore. Arnab ignored as he himself used this tactic to get where he is, if only people had ignored him then. With Soros coming in to invest, expect more such public auditioning.”

Saint Kunal Kamra

All this makes us wonder why this government takes so much pleasure in canonising Kamra.

There was no reason for a Union Minister to get personally involved. It makes the entire executive – from top to bottom – look like a mean bully sitting with a magnifying glass over an ant-hill.

Perhaps it feels that the only way it can continue to win or remain relevant is by elevating non-entities and then vilifying and 'othering' them.

Like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid, Chandrashekhar Azad and now Aishe Ghosh – the establishment really loves marking its opponents much like Voldemort marked Harry Potter. Perhaps, it helps to constantly create an ‘other’ who can be repeat demonised because this government is clueless when it comes to actual debates or questions.

Now Kunal Kamra will get his day in the sun, turning up on the New York Times or Washington Post as an anti-establishment comedian grounded for standing up to a ‘fascist’ news anchor. And BJP spokespeople will happily go on news channels to further vitiate the atmosphere and target the comedian, celebrating the rule of law even as their own leaders chant ‘goli maaron gaadaron ko’.

What is lost as this inane act gets the oxygen of publicity is the true dissenters who are speaking up against the government but don’t have the privilege of getting that publicity. Not to mention other real issues ,as news entities waste their resources on a story like this since it fits their ‘narrative’. The real loser is everyone who votes or consumes news.

Nirmalya Dutta is the Web Editor of The Free Press Journal. He tweets at @nirmalyadutta23.

The views expressed in this article are personal and are not necessarily endorsed by The Free Press Journal.

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