Standup comic Agrima Joshua found herself in the centre of a political storm yesterday, after Twitter users dug up a year old video of her performing a joke about the under-construction Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Memorial statue in the Arabian Sea. The video—which shows Joshua poking fun at the over-the-top answers about the statue on question-and-answer site Quora—went viral on social media, with many users accusing her of insulting the 17th century Maratha ruler.
They found support in Hindutva leader Ramesh Solanki and Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik, with the latter even writing a letter to Home Minister Anil Deshmukh asking for strict legal action against Joshua. Later that evening, comedy venue The Habitat was vandalised by men claiming to be from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, following which Joshua took down the video and tweeted out an apology. This afternoon, Home Minister Deshmukh said that he has instructed CP Mumbai and IG Cyber to take legal action and appealed for calm.
The controversy comes two days after comedian Kenny Sebastian got in trouble for allegedly posting misogynistic abuse in his Instagram comments (which he has denied) in response to trolling, harassment and religious slurs directed at him by right-wing social media users. Joshua came under fire after she tweeted in Sebastian’s defense, with many accounts posting religious slurs and threats against the comedian. The video—released on YouTube over a year ago—resurfaced on Thursday in the midst of this online slugfest and was quickly latched on to by a number of accounts.
The outrage is centred on a joke about how people get offended if you don’t refer to the leader with the full title of ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’. Soon after the video resurfaced, Hindutva leader and former Shiv Sena member Ramesh Solanki tweeted at CM Uddhav Thackeray, asking for action against Joshua and claiming that she had “hurt feelings of crores of Maharaj devotees across the globe.”
Joshua also tweeted at Yuva Sena president Aditya Thackeray, claiming that she was being targeted by trolls from the BJP IT Cell, and that the BJP was “just using Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s name to silence us.” However, she received no response from the younger Thackeray. Instead, Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik weighed in on the issue and asked for legal action against her, saying “I saw the video and I feel she doesn’t have respect for Shivaji Maharaj or she doesn’t know about him.” He also warned that “the Hindutvawadi Janata will not tolerate it.”
Then, last night, a group of men barged into comedy venue The Habitat—where the video had been recorded—and smashed the venue’s on-stage logo as well as some furniture, while demanding that they be given Joshua’s contact information. A video of the incident was uploaded on Facebook Live by one of the men, who claims on his Facebook profile to be a social worker with the MNS. In the video, the man can be seen threatening and lecturing the employees at the venue, as someone else smashes a table in the background.
Following the violence, as well as demands for her arrest (and a barrage of misogynistic and xenophobic abuse on Twitter), Joshua tweeted out an apology. “”I am sorry for having hurt the sentiments of the many followers of the great leader Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. My heartfelt apologies to followers of the great leader, who I sincerely respect. The video has already been taken down.” This evening, she followed it up with another video apology.
“I’ve chosen to do what’s best for the comedy community at large,” Joshua told DeadAnt when we reached out to her for a comment. “My silence and restraint on this matter is in solidarity with every creator and artist. For me, right now, the spaces and establishments that promote them are a priority. We are all responsible for each other. And it’s only united us more.”
Meanwhile, The Habitat has also put out a statement on social media about the incident. “We are a family of artists,” it says. “To put forth a message, we devote our lives to finding creative expression. Not towards acts of barbaric violence or mindless sharing of violence.”
The founder of The Habitat, Balraj Singh Ghai, was shocked and appalled at the use of violence over a request for a simple apology letter. “There could have been a simple conversation or a phone call to resolve this, but to barge in with a mob of 12-14 people who were refusing to discuss the matter and force entry into a premises shut due to the prevalent lockdown, and then going live on social media whilst vandalising the space for the letter is clearly pointing towards a questionable intention,” he said. “As a venue for a family of artists across genres of poetry, stand up comedy, music and improvised theatre, we have observed that every single artist devotes their entire time to try and craft their message in the most responsible way possible. Even if it is not understood by someone, the onus is on the listener to make an attempt to understand by questioning rather than presume and act.”
The incident has prompted a few prominent comedians to speak up about the abuse and threats of violence that they have to face in these increasingly polarised times. Vir Das posted a satirical video about “offensive comedy” apparently inspired by the controversy earlier today on Twitter. On his Instagram story, Rohan Joshi spoke of the lack of support for comics who become the target of online mobs. Talking about the chilling effect this has on comedians who want to engage with politics, he said “it is surreal and hilarious to try and have a voice in a society, which has been set up in such a way that every legal, social and political protection is offered to any thug who wants to silence that voice, and absolutely ZERO protections exist for anyone who wants to use their voice.”
“They’re just taking a few seconds from an old video out of context, they’re manufacturing offense,” adds Kunal Kamra, who has faced his share of controversies due to his outspoken political opinions. “That will do the job of enforcing fear. When the camera is on, a comedian now will really think three times before they say anything. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but that’s what will happen. And that’s what they want.”
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