An Indian stand-up comedian has been slapped with a flight ban by four Indian airlines after he heckled a popular right-wing television presenter on board an aircraft.
Kunal Kamra, 30, on Tuesday tweeted a two-minute video of himself berating Republic TV’s editor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami, during a Mumbai-Lucknow flight, in which he asked the right-wing journalist if he was “a coward or a nationalist”.
Goswami is known for his high-decibel debates, during which he is seen shouting at his panelists, attacking critics of the government, and even calling people “traitors” and “anti-nationals”.
On his popular show, the 46-year-old journalist has called for war against India’s neighbour Pakistan and once sought to shut down a rival news channel for airing a documentary.
Some people have criticised Kamra for the “harsh measure” he took to confront Goswami, saying he mocked the news anchor the same way the latter shouts at his guests on live TV.
The video shows Goswami wearing sunglasses and earphones, maintaining his composure, as Kamra calls him a “coward” and a “nationalist”.
Kamra said he grilled Goswami to avenge the presenter’s alleged bad portrayal of his late friend’s mother.
“This is for Rohith’s mother,” Kamra can be heard saying at the end of the video.
“Read that 10-page suicide letter that Rohith wrote so that you have some emotion, some heart or you just become human.”
Rohith Vemula, a student at the University of Hyderabad who was from the Dalit caste (an ethnic group once called the “untouchables”), committed suicide in 2016 after the university allegedly withheld his monthly stipend over his political activism.
I did this for my hero…
I did it for Rohit pic.twitter.com/aMSdiTanHo
— Kunal Kamra (@kunalkamra88) January 28, 2020
Minister calls for action
Shortly after Kamra’s video went viral, IndiGo barred Kamra from flying for six months. The private airline made the announcement on Twitter and tagged India’s civil aviation minister.
“In light of the recent incident on board 6E 5317 from Mumbai to Lucknow, we wish to inform that we are suspending Mr Kunal Kamra from flying with IndiGo for a period of six months, as his conduct onboard was unacceptable behaviour,” Indigo tweeted.
“Hereby, we wish to advise our passengers to refrain from indulging in personal slander whilst onboard, as this can potentially compromise the safety of fellow passengers.”
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri advised other airlines to impose similar restrictions on the comedian.
Soon, state carrier Air India and two other private airlines – SpiceJet Limited and GoAir – followed suit.
Later, India’s head of civil aviation regulatory authority told the Huffington Post website that the flight ban was not a violation of its rules.
Meanwhile, Kamra, who has been critical of the “hyper-nationalistic” TV media and often parodies popular TV presenters peddling a pro-government narrative, defended his conduct.
“Fact of the matter is that at no point was I disruptive and at no point did I not follow orders of the cabin crew or the captain. At no point did I endanger the safety of any passenger on board, the only damage I caused was to the inflated ego to the ‘journalist’ Arnab Goswami,” Kamra said in a statement on Wednesday.
“To my limited knowledge, no formal complaint has been made by the crew of Arnab or anyone else taking the flight,” he added.
But a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman supported the flight ban against Kamra.
“The action against Kunal Kamra is in accordance with the established policy and guidelines already in force. Hence, even before the civil aviation minister advised against the individual, IndiGo airlines initiated action as per the policy,” BJP spokesman GVL Narasimha Rao told Al Jazeera.
‘Is Mr Goswami a state dignitary?’
The ban on Kamra triggered a huge debate on social media, with the controversy quickly becoming one of the top trends on Twitter. Many called out the airlines for resorting to double standards.
An old video of Republic TV has also gone viral. In it, its reporter can be seen heckling a politician from Bihar state on board a flight, despite him repeatedly refusing to answer.
Dear Journalist, It’s easy to abuse politicians but difficult to live their life. We don’t hv any privacy anywhere but u hv. We are into a great thankless job of serving people & u r in bootlicking job of pleasing ur paymasters. Who’s brat of Whom country knows it inside out? https://t.co/eJiifxKxHP
— Tejashwi Yadav (@yadavtejashwi) January 29, 2020
Many also raised questions about why no action was taken against BJP parliamentarian Pragya Singh Thakur, who last month entered into an argument with flight attendants that delayed a flight.
Delhi-based activist Yogendra Yadav described the action against Kamra “astonishing” and wondered at the government’s quick response in support of Goswami.
“Is Mr Goswami a state dignitary? Why this special treatment to him?” asked Yadav while talking to Al Jazeera. “Has the government followed similar norms in the past or there are special rules for the friends of this regime?”
Yadav said Goswami is seen as “a friend” of the BJP government and Kamra is viewed as an “outspoken critic”.
“The interesting thing is the response from the airlines. It gives us a sense of what this regime is all about,” he said.