On Tuesday evening, comedian Kunal Kamra set the Internet buzzing after he tweeted a video showing him heckling Republic TV editor and owner Arnab Goswami on board a Mumbai-Lucknow Indigo flight. Hours later, Indigo banned Kamra from travelling on any of its flights for the next six months, while national airline Air India suspended Kamra from its flights “until further notice”.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri also issued a statement advising other airlines to follow suit to prevent such “offensive behaviour designed to provoke” on flights.
In the video that Kamra posted, Goswami can be seen sitting with earphones and looking away while Kamra can be heard calling the journalist a “coward” and a “nationalist”. The comedian posted a statement on Twitter detailing his reasons to accost the TV anchor.
The Kamra act became the top trend on Twitter by Tuesday night, drawing applause from a section of his followers and criticism from many others. While right-leaning social media users unequivocally condemned Kamra for his behaviour, liberal voices were divided.
Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor said Kamra had given Goswami a “taste of his own medicine”. In 2017, he had filed a defamation suit against Goswami and Republic TV in the Delhi High Court, for remarks that the channel had made against Tharoor in connection with the death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar.
Others also took the view that Kamra’s behaviour was not unlike the behaviour of Goswami himself. Journalist Sunil Jain, for instance, pointed out that Republic TV had hounded Tharoor in public places and was biased in its reportage of Pushkar’s death.
But many journalists drew a distinction between accosting a politician and heckling a journalist, no matter how problematic their journalism is. This, in turn, spurred more debate on whether propagandist, hate-spewing news operations counted as journalism.
Other Twitter users were equally conflicted about the ethics of Kamra’s act.
But the debate shifted away from the ethics of Kamra’s act after a slew of airlines suspended him from flying with them. This was seen as action taken under pressure from the Civil Aviation Ministry.
Twitter users pointed out the contradictions in the way airlines in India have responded to unruly passengers who have disturbed or caused inconvenience to others.
In 2017, a Republic TV reporter had insistently questioned RJD politician Tejashwi Yadav on board a flight, standing up and blocking the aisle, despite repeated warnings from cabin crew. No action was taken against the reporter.
In March 2017, Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad had hit an Air India employee several times with a slipper when his business class ticket was converted to an economy class ticket. However, days after the airline banned Gaikwad from its flights, Air India revoked the prohibition because Gaikwad sent a letter of apology to the aviation minister.
More recently, in December 2019, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Pragya Thakur delayed a SpiceJet flight and got into an argument with fellow passengers when she was not given a first-class seat. On Wednesday morning, SpiceJet banned Kamra indefinitely for his behaviour on the Indigo flight. It had not taken any action against Thakur.
Some commenters slammed such double standards, both by airlines and by the government in power.