The Kunal Kamra-Arnab Goswami Showdown Exposes the Apathy of the Good Middle-Class Indian
Arnab Goswami is not a war criminal.
He’s not. He can’t be. There is no war in India.
Of course, in looking to Kashmir, or Assam, or Uttar Pradesh, or Chhattisgarh, keen political observers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There is not a war in India though, and Arnab Goswami—who is not neutral—is not a war criminal.
We all know that Arnab Goswami is a rich and powerful man. That his meteoric rise in the Indian media-sphere has been facilitated by his connections with the current ruling party and his fawning relationship with the current prime minister. We all understand that perhaps it’s more appropriate to see him as a propagandist than as a journalist, and certainly that he is more a public figure than a private citizen (I’m reminded of the old joke: Joseph Goebbels walks into a bar…) but still, he’s not a war criminal—yet—and, at least on that much, I think we can all agree.
He’s not a war criminal, Arnab Goswami, and he’s also not the focus of this piece for, as BJP apparatchiks and many respectable middle-class Indians alike have pointed out in the hours since Kunal Kamra confronted Goswami on an IndiGo flight from Bombay to Lucknow, the real issue at hand is personal space. As the personal space of anti-CAA protestors was respected across UP and in Mangaluru by the police; as the personal space of the Bhima Koregaon accused continues to be respected in prison; as the personal space of students at JNU was respected by the iron bar-wielding thugs; as the personal space of Gauri Lankesh, and M.M. Kalburgi, and Govind Pansare, and Narendra Dabholkar was respected—may they rest in power—so too, must the personal space of Arnab Goswami be protected? But, of course not, because such words could be twisted to seem to be advocating violence, when, in fact, what I’m advocating is the opposite.
We still remember 2015, and 2002, and 1994. Actually, we remember 1984 as well—because this is not an apology for the Congress—and even 1919, because this is certainly not an apology for the British. And to be clear, we even remember 2008 and 2001 (and 1999, and 1971, and 1965, and 1962, and 1947).
We just don’t believe in endless war. Or police states. Or fascism. In the face of violence, we call for peace, justice, and secularism. In the face of those who perpetuate it, we nonviolently protest. We employ civil disobedience. We call for more democracy, not less. We hold the powerful to account, just as Kamra did on that plane.
But I digress, because the true focus of this piece is not Goswami, or Kamra, or even endless war, but the Good Middle-Class Indian. Like every national bourgeoisie, the Indian middle class is a dynamic and heroic world-historic force, or perceives itself to be. India is Shining after all. Or Mak[ing] as the case may be. And if the Indian countryside is screaming. If the Indian megacities are overflowing with people displaced by megaprojects and corporate graft. If the planet is hurtling towards global climatic catastrophe with South Asia at the bleeding edge of the suffering. If groundwater shortages, and drought, and searing temperatures, and choking air quality, and biodiversity implosion all leave little doubt about the ecological disaster now unfolding all around us. Even if all of the above is true—save for the pollution (which its considered gauche to mention)—things have never been better for Good Middle-Class Indians and the ruling class above, towards which they aspire. They are global citizens. They drive European luxury cars. They travel freely to (somewhat) fashionable vacation destinations all around the world.
They live much like we live—those of us here in the United States who enjoy similar privileges and are guilty of similar historic crimes—and they desperately want to believe that if they just keep their heads down, all this political turmoil won’t touch them.
And the thing is, they may be right. As long as they’re comfortable with fascism. As long as they can live with autocracy. As long as the pogroms don’t disturb their morning coffee, and the brewing genocides don’t upset their afternoon chai. I could go on, but you get the point. Good Middle-Class Indians are afraid of Kamra, and often willing to defend people like Goswami—their personal space that is, which, like private property, is sacrosanct!—because they are desperate to believe that in the midst of epochal global turmoil, they, at least, can stay safe in their luxury cars, and luxury apartments, safe from politics, the problems of the poor, safe on the planes and in the hotels and vacation rentals where they occasionally luxuriate.
Safe with their strongman, as long as they stay quiet.
We are not so different here in the US – and here, perhaps I’m speaking specifically about the Good (Liberal) Middle-Class American; we may delight when Colbert confronts Bush, or Stewart confronts Carlson, or Minhaj can “not see, not see, not see” Steve Bannon. Even when courageous individuals confront US Senators (for example, over the packing with right-wing ideologues of our Supreme Court), we may cheer, but we too live in fear of right wing trolls, and white supremacists armed with assault rifles, and the power of the state; for our part, we believe that if we can just get rid of our current president, if we can just get back to “normal,” then things will be fine. Never mind the Global War on Terror, our world-destroying military-industrial complex, our own evolving police and carceral state, the global climate crisis…
But I digress again. The Good Middle-Class Indian chuckles about Kamra’s suspension from all major Indian airlines; minces words about the semantics of privacy; critiques outright Kamra’s lack of decorum, his rudeness; even takes up Goswami’s description of Kamra as “mentally unstable”—which he must be! What right thinking person would risk his own freedom to fly, perhaps his own personal safety, even potentially his liberty just to confront a not-war criminal? It’s crazy! Keep your head down. Respect Goswami’s personal space at all costs because then nothing and no one can ever violate your own. Right?
But of course, it’s not right. In fact, it’s wrong. In fact, we all know it to be so. We know that Goswami nightly advocates violence. We know he is a monger of hate and fear. We know he is bought and paid for by the same government that has turned India’s scientific institutions into laughing stocks and its cultural institutions into hollow shells of themselves. We know all this in our hearts because it is obvious and because it is true. And we now that our tacit denial cannot keep us safe. Perhaps the masses, as they are sometimes called, can be forgiven for believing that Ayurveda will protect them from the Wuhan coronavirus (it might, after all), or that Muslims, foreigners, other strangers are there to abduct their children (the WhatsApp rumors are all lies, but the fear is not an ungrounded one), or that authoritarians are really there to save them.
Finally, we’ve come to the crux of the matter though: Lies. The poor and marginalised can, perhaps, be forgiven for believing them. For being deceived, propagandised, mobilised by them into a frothing nationalist mob at the service of whichever masjid-destroying, village-razing, country-ravaging interests are currently manning the levers of power—and they are mostly men. But the rich, and the relatively so? The Good Middle-Class Indians? They should know better, shouldn’t they? Than to believe the lies that are circulating, whether online or on Republic TV?
They should. And, for the most part, they do. In their hearts, they know the lies are lies, but it feels safer to believe them. Or such is my assessment. Why dare look out the window at the state of the world when you can keep your eyes glued to the screen, ears thrilling to the voice of the shouting man who makes you feel strong, secure, unafraid? Kunal Kamra is an inter/national hero, and we should all be so lucky to walk 1,364 kilometres in his shoes. Leave the hand-wringing to the Good Indians. We have a world to remake.