A left-wing comedian—who hosts an influential podcast, regularly receives death threats, and was also asked to vacate his home because of the political nature of his stand-up—and a propagandist (masquerading as a journalist) walk into an aircraft. Don’t wait for a punchline; there isn’t one. Instead, on the other side of the Kunal Kamra-Arnab Goswami showdown onboard an Indigo flight four days ago, lies a divided nation.
I could have written this in one of two ways: ‘Kunal Kamra is a courageous hero, speaking up against a Modi-crony performing as a journalist’ or ‘Kunal Kamra has abused his freedom of expression by exercising his right without ethical foresight’. My thinking was dutifully reproduced by a variety of media outlets in the first cycle of responses to the story. It is often easier, and disturbingly intuitive, to think in binaries, but this often oversimplifies things.
Instead, this article is going to respond to the one question still being raised (and not quite satisfactorily answered)—was Kamra right in approaching Goswami?
This is not entirely clear. Kamra is not a journalist and so any standards maintained across the industry do not apply to him. Moreover, from his own account, he did not initially intend on furnishing a story of his interaction with Goswami. However, Kamra did not act in his capacity solely as an Indian citizen; although this may seem redundant to explicitly state, it was his status as an Indian citizen, coupled with his public persona (scaffolded by more than 800,000 Twitter followers) that approached the sunglasses and headphone-wearing Goswami. Emboldened by Goswami’s rejection for a civil conversation during the flight, Kamra went rogue and began filming his polemic. In an act of sousveillance (read: in contrast to surveillance (oversight), it is recording authorities by bringing the camera down (sous) to eye-level), Kamra starts hurling observations, questions, challenges, and epithets at the unusually mute Goswami.
Was the vehemence of his delivery warranted? Absolutely. Was the language he used effective? That’s debatable. Was it morally defensible? For the most part.
Throughout the two-minute-long video, Kamra can be heard questioning the Republic TV anchor, calling him out on his cowardice, and deploying his own catchphrase against him (“The viewers today want to know if Arnab is a coward or a nationalist”). He references Rohith Vemula’s suicide and Goswami’s morally repugnant coverage of the incident on Republic TV – Goswami consistently reiterated the political mileage ‘sucked out’ of the suicide (of the Dalit student from Hyderabad University) by politicians from the Congress and CPIM. Kamra then beseeches Goswami to read the 10-page suicide letter Rohith Vemula wrote. His voice quivers slightly at this moment suggesting the rush of emotion that accompanied these charged sentences. Everything Kamra stated until this moment is not only morally permissible but, in fact, laudable.
The only statement that is not morally sound, in this writer’s opinion, is made by Kamra just before the video clip ends when he says “So that you just become human” [with reference to Kamra urging Goswami to read the suicide note]. While it may be attributed to an upsurge in emotion, the assertion that Goswami was inhuman because of his morally bereft (pseudo)journalism is perhaps regrettable. But this momentary verbal slip does lend credence to the argument that dialogue and debate are more effective means to purposive communication.
I recognise the lofty expectation that both speakers in a dialogue ought to act with decorum and respect—qualities absent from Goswami’s television persona—but I don’t see the constant renewal of democracy WITHOUT these vital processes.
Kamra, in his defense, did begin with the intention for a polite conversation. When refused, he resorted to means that suited the circumstances. Does this set a dangerous precedent? Yes. Would a forum organised for a question and answer session have been a more favourable set of circumstances for this interaction? Undoubtedly. And yet, one can forgive Kamra for taking his opportunity to hold accountable an irresponsible surrogate for the Modi regime, who flagrantly abuses his power and privilege. But we must remember that Kamra is a public figure with an established fan base. He does not carry the historical burden of Dalit identity that Rohith Vemula embodied. Kamra is a privileged agitator and the unimaginability of a Dalit citizen, comic, agitator in India acting upon the same impulse to hold Goswami accountable should be a reminder of how far India has yet to go.