Kamra vs Goswami: We Are Well Beyond Civility in Discourse

By Bhanuj Kappal 30 January 2020


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Sure, in an ideal world political discourse would restrict itself to a battle of ideas. But a world in which Arnab and his ilk… next time, just throw your drink at him.

Around 4 pm on 28 January, Kunal Kamra uploaded a two-minute video with the somewhat melodramatic and self-aggrandising caption “I did this for my hero… I did it for Rohit.” Shot inside an Indigo Airlines flight, the video features Indian television’s rabble-rouser-in-chief Arnab Goswami trying to watch a movie on his laptop—with shades on, because, of course—and doing his best not to look at the camera. Standing off-camera, Kamra harangues Goswami, calling him a coward and trying to bait him into a response, using the same buzzwords and catch-phrases that Goswami loves to deploy during his regular on-air diatribes.

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I did it for my hero I did it for Rohit…

A post shared by Kamra (@kuna_kamra) on

To be honest, the whole thing was a bit cringe-worthy, especially when Kamra declared that he was willing to go to jail for what I’m sure he imagined was a revolutionary act. It seems obvious that Kamra was attempting some form of direct action against a media figure who has played a major role in the mainstreaming of divisive hate politics in the country. Kind of like a watered-down, safe-for-liberals version of milkshaking, the popular dairy-centric direct action that involves throwing milkshakes at far-right political figures.

To be honest, the whole thing was a bit cringe-worthy, especially when Kamra declared that he was willing to go to jail for what I’m sure he imagined was a revolutionary act.

It’s equally obvious that it didn’t quite work. Goswami refused to take the bait, ignoring Kamra throughout the video. Towards the end, Kamra sounded almost plaintive, perhaps recognising that things weren’t exactly going as planned. As direct action, this whole charade was spectacularly unsuccessful. The general aim with this sort of action is to evoke a response, hopefully something that makes the target look ridiculous and strip them of the hard-man image that fascists and their enablers like to project. But Kamra is unwilling or unable to do what it takes to achieve that. I’m not sure whether it’s because of some innate sense of decorum or fear of arrest—despite his proclamation—but he’s just not rude enough, disruptive enough, direct enough. As a result, instead of Arnab, it’s him who runs the risk of looking ridiculous.

There’s also the question of why Kamra felt the need to do this at all. After all, as Sabina Y. Rahman, assistant professor of social work at TISS Guwahati, mentioned in a conversation earlier today, Kamra is not an ordinary citizen. He is a popular stand-up comic with his own platform and a not-insignificant audience. “I think social location [should] determine action strategy,” says Yasmin, pointing out that Kamra’s privilege protects him from the worst of the consequences that an average protester would have faced. “It was, in fact, a status quo-ist co-option of radical politics.”

Kamra is not an ordinary citizen. He is a popular stand-up comic with his own platform and a not-insignificant audience.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m reading too much into this. Kamra isn’t exactly known for his grasp of radical politics, and as I mentioned in an earlier article for DeadAnt, his political comedy is conspicuously lacking in actual political critique. So maybe Kamra just wanted to vent, to give his bête noire a “taste of his own medicine.” But if that was his intent, then is this really the best he could do? I mean this is someone who makes jokes for a living. He could have made this a roast of Arnab Goswami, but instead, he comes across as a petty heckler. If this was someone at one of his shows, Kamra would have shut him down in an instant. Maybe the fact that Goswami chose to ignore him was actually a blessing in disguise. A swing and a definite miss.

But whatever, I guess he thought it would make for good content. I expected that the video would spawn some memes, maybe some Kamra-Goswami shipping fanfic, and obviously—an online skirmish between Kamra stans and the BJP troll army. But then, I figured, we’d quickly move on to talking about all the things that really matter—like Union ministers chanting slogans asking for “traitors” to be shot, the state’s ongoing repression of anti-CAA protesters and activists, or the police in Karnataka interrogating 10-year-old schoolkids for putting on a damn play.

Within a few hours, Indigo announced that it was banning Kamra from all of its flights for six months.

Yeah, I’m not sure what I was thinking either. Within a few hours, Indigo announced that it was banning Kamra from all of its flights for six months. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri joined the fray to “advise” other airlines to impose similar bans on Kamra. At the time of writing, Air India, Spicejet and GoAir had followed suit, while Vistara and AirAsia were still “reviewing” the matter, even as questions were being raised about whether the bans followed due process. Though when has this government ever been worried about due process, especially when it comes to punitive action against its critics?

Meanwhile, the right-wing media ecosystem went into overdrive. Right-wing commentators dusted off long-forgotten concepts like decency and privacy, while OpIndia tried to paint Kamra as a mentally unstable security threat based on the testimony of an anonymous (and possibly fictional) passenger. They were also joined by many of India’s liberal journalists and commentators, who took great pains to point out that they disagreed with Goswami but couldn’t condone Kamra’s actions. “We cannot use fascist tactics,” proclaimed one journalist with a major publication. I didn’t realise heckling was a fascist tactic, I thought I was just being a smart-ass when I shouted “Free Bird” at metal gigs.

This concern for the niceties of “civil discourse” is not new.

This concern for the niceties of “civil discourse” is not new. We saw the same protestations just a few days ago when Deepak Chaurasia and Sudhir Chaudhary—the Darth Vader and Darth Tyranus to Goswami’s Darth Sidious—were unceremoniously thrown out of Shaheen Bagh by protesters unwilling to give space to the people who have incited so much hatred against them. We saw the same hand-wringing in the US and the UK when protesters designed to show their contempt for fascists and Neo-Nazis in direct, often physical, ways. Sure, in an ideal world political discourse would restrict itself to a battle of ideas. But a world in which Arnab and his ilk regularly direct virtual and physical mobs to anyone who dares to oppose their Hindu majorotarian agenda, in which his own reporters harass politicians and activists in their homes, on the streets, and—yes—on airplanes, in which police harass, torture and even kill peaceful protesters while being cheered on by TV news demagogues, is not an ideal world.

Just this afternoon, we saw the results of this Radio Rwanda style journalism, as a 19-year-old man shot at anti-CAA protesters outside Jamia Millia University in Delhi, injuring a student. Goswami’s Republic spent half an hour pretending that the terrorist was a protester, long after his identity had been made public. This is not a one-off but the latest in a long campaign of misinformation and polarisation, and Goswami has been one of its most willing and effective architects. Where is the civility in the Republic’s discourse?  

In reality, this overbearing concern for “civility” is at best, a reflection of the hand-wringer’s privilege.

In reality, this overbearing concern for “civility” is at best, a reflection of the hand-wringer’s privilege, and at worst, a way to tone police and silence the voices of those most vulnerable to the rhetorical and physical violence of fascism. The public discourse that these commentators are so protective of has already been decisively hijacked by some of the most divisive, even genocidal forces this country has ever seen. And in fact, I’m not so sure this “civil” public discourse ever existed outside of the TV studios and living rooms of the country’s political elite. The status quo that this invariably upper-class upper-caste liberal elite wants to return to was never actually as just or “civil” as they believed. It only seemed that way because they were protected by their social location, the consequences of their ideological debates too remote to trouble their comfortable lives. Ask the people of Kashmir, or Niyamgiri, or Bastar, or any of the many many parts of the country that have had to deal with the jackboot of progress how “civil” India’s political discourse always has been.

But there’s more at play here than just the ignorance that comes from privilege. After all, we’re talking about some of the most prominent journalists and political activists—for a given definition of the term—in the country. Ignorance is not a viable excuse. What explains this attitude better is the realisation that despite their differences—left, liberal or right—these commentators and politicians are part of the same ruling class, with all the class solidarity that that implies. The political order they are used to is one of “dinner party” politics, where differences are couched in polite terms and ideological disagreements are topics of discussion over a glass of whiskey. The people who live and die because of those disagreements are little more than rhetorical trump cards.

But the rise of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, and Arnab Goswami has upset this delicate house of cards. Ruling class solidarity is no longer a given. The resurgent Hindu right won’t spare you for being from the right circles, or for sticking to rules of engagement that they have long abandoned. And the organic groundswell of resistance that is forming now isn’t going to be satisfied with a return to the status quo. They’re not putting their lives and freedoms on the line to defeat genocidal politics, only to go back to one where the marginalised are condemned to economic precarity, neglect and state violence as the invisible consequence of “civil politics”. There is no return to the politics-as-usual that the civility brigade are nostalgic for.

And maybe the fear of that reckoning, of the loss of influence regardless of who wins the battle between fascism and progressivism, is what drives this unquenchable thirst for a mythical “civility”.

If there is one complaint I’d make about Kamra’s action—apart from the fact that he wasn’t rude enough, witty enough—it’s his use of Rohith and Radhika Vemula to justify his action. I’m sure he meant well. Rohith’s death was the major inspiration for him to get into politics in the first place, after all. But it’s a reflection of the poverty of his own political understanding that he thought it fit to invoke a woman who is already the target of so much abuse to justify his actions. For too long, privileged upper-caste interlopers like him—and me—have used Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and other marginalised communities as justification for our political actions. But the time when this sort of saviour complex was acceptable has long passed (if it ever was). If you’re going to heckle a fascist, do it because you are opposed to his politics, not in someone else’s name. And next time, just throw your drink at Goswami. It’ll be a lot funnier.

Arnab Goswami Kunal Kamra