On January 28, standup comedian Kunal Kamra boarded an IndiGo flight from Mumbai to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Upon boarding his flight, he encountered Arnab Goswami, a TV anchor at Republic TV. Kamra recorded part of his interaction, and in the video, he asks Goswami if he is a “coward or a journalist.” He says Goswami’s name in a pleasant, sing-songy way, (Arrnaaaab!) but fails to get the anchor’s attention.
Kamra explained that he’s doing this for Rohith Vemula’s mother, “whose caste you were discussing on your fuckin’ show,” he told Goswami. Rohith Vemula was a PhD candidate who died by suicide in 2016 after facing caste discrimination. Goswami is a journalist known for being in favor of the current far-right, nationalist BJP party.
As a result of Kamra’s actions, he has been essentially placed on a no-fly list, banned on four Indian airlines, as he told Al Jazeera. In addition to IndiGo banning Kamra, major Indian airlines SpiceJet, GoAir, and Air India will not allow Kamra on their flights for six months.
The repercussions that Kamra faced in retaliation have inadvertently made their way to the United States, where a different Kunal Kamra had his flight cancelled by Air India when his name was mistaken for the blacklisted Indian standup.
It’s a horrifying and heavy-handed response for a decidedly mild interaction between two adults. It’s difficult to imagine a similar response in the United States, when there has been a spate of similar incidents across D.C. restaurants. There’s the instance of Mitch McConnell being called “turtle head” at a Kentucky restaurant, Stephen Miller being called a fascist, and former Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen quite literally being shamed out of a Mexican restaurant, to name a few.
The Modi administration and the Trump administration bear many similarities, neither of which are very flattering for either country. The ruling BJP party has co-opted the classification of unfavorable coverage as “fake news,” and weaponized WhatsApp to spread disinformation across millions of Indian residents. The party has stoked and harnessed a violent brand of nationalism, with a horrendous and out-in-the-open disdain for Muslims that is sure to make some White House staffers jealous.
The treatment of Kamra matters, especially for Americans concerned with free speech, comedy, and the nonpartisan belief that airlines are run by assholes. Kamra is a comedian being punished for his speech in a real way, which jarringly contrasts the typical Western example (getting publicly criticized for a joke.)
Kunal Kamra, as he notes in the video, was aware that he would likely face repercussions for confronting Goswami. He deserves recognition and respect for his actions, which have severely impaired his ability to move freely around the country.
Showing the polarizing nature of caste and politics in India, there are currently both petitions to lift Kamra’s travel ban as well as one to officially place Kamra on the no-fly list. In a sign of hope, more than 53,000 signees want Kamra to travel again, less than 600 think the comic deserves a permanent ban.