Kamra vs Arnab: How Do Indian Airlines Decide Who to Put on the No-Fly List?

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Kamra vs Arnab: How Do Indian Airlines Decide Who to Put on the No-Fly List?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

By now, you’ve probably seen comedian Kunal Kamra’s in-flight taunting of Republic TV chief and Arnab Goswami on January 28. It was a fine piece of sledging that would have left the Australian slip cordon of the ’90s nodding their heads in approval.

Sadly, and predictably, IndiGo, one of India’s most respected carriers, got caught in the crossfire between team Kamra+liberals and team Government+cronies. Late that evening, as social media was rife with glee, outrage, and censure over Kamra’s video, IndiGo suspended him from all their flights for six months.

Now I won’t get into whether that action was justified (indeed, I’ve seen many of my anti-CAA liberal friends agree that Kamra had gone too far), but what I will say is this: The whole incident shows how scared Indian companies are of pissing the government off.

Most recently, Bhopal MP Pragya Thakur delayed an entire SpiceJet flight and kicked up a ruckus with its staff. Last I checked, she’s still allowed to fly.

In a tweet announcing the decision, the airline made it a point to tag the Ministry of Civil Aviation and its Union Minister, Hardeep Singh Puri. Tellingly, it started its tweet with the handles, which any Twitter nerd will tell you means only those who follow said accounts would see it “organically” on their timelines.

Let’s take a minute to appreciate how inexorably the airline’s hands are tied. It also probably gives you an insight into what happened before said tweet was posted: A few angry calls, probably a few threats (aviation, after all, is a highly license-driven business), frantic internal decisions, and a call to the head of social media, culminating in “just for good measure, make sure you tag the minister and his department as well.” 

Their tweet was promptly re-tweeted by Puri, with a not-so-subtle call for other airlines to ensure Kamra stayed on the ground. “Advise other airlines,” he said, but you can rest assured that by the morning of January 29, all other airlines were locked in discussions of their own. At the end of those meetings, SpiceJet decided to follow suit, and ban Kamra “until further notice”. As did Air India. As did GoAir. It’s kind of like how your school principal “advises” you not to grow your hair, and then proceeds to get a teacher to chop off your fringe with a pair of scissors.

This episode is the latest in a series of what is becoming predictable, depressing intolerance for dissent from the ruling party. The Kamra-Arnab episode is worth contrasting with other airline-related controversies over the last few years, especially those starring luminaries from the BJP. Most recently, Bhopal MP (and terror-accused police-mocking) Pragya Thakur delayed an entire SpiceJet flight and kicked up a ruckus with its staff. Last I checked, she’s still allowed to fly. She definitely created more problems and inconvenienced more passengers than Kamra did.

Republic TV themselves will do well to remember that one of their journalists and cameramen shoved themselves into the face of the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav a few years ago on a flight.

In 2017, the a member of the BJP’s then Maharashtra ally, the Shiv Sena, Ravindra Gaikwad beat an Air India staffer with a chappal 25 times because he had to endure the pain of travelling by economy class. I’d stick my neck out and say if this was in 2020, the BJP would have come down sharply on him, now that the Sena is no longer an ally. And on the ground, the BJP’s Ram Shankar Katheria had a tollbooth officer thrashed and he still seems to be able to travel by road. There was no official censure from any authority, nor any ban from a private company (my guess, though, is – if SpiceJet indeed did bar Thakur from their flights, that would have caused an immediate right-wing reaction and news of some licenses being “reviewed”).

Republic TV themselves will do well to remember that one of their journalists and cameramen shoved themselves into the face of the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav a few years ago on a flight – Arnab proudly declaring how “Dipti interviewed Lalu’s brat” (I’d like to see how many days NDTV goes without an FIR if they try this stunt).

The whole incident also shows how companies are petrified of the government. And I find it hard to blame them — why needlessly endanger their businesses, lives and safety of thousands of employees by sticking their head into these matters? As much as they feel about it personally, they don’t need an MBA degree to do a cost-benefit analysis. As Faye D’Souza said in her excellent speech at Spoken Fest a few weeks ago: “Corporate India is so afraid to tick off the government, they’re worried their files might not move through North Block.” And as much as I wish our corporate leaders did more and spoke more, who can blame them in this “atmosphere of fear”, as Rahul Bajaj himself told Amit Shah, only for the concern to be rubbished? On the other hand, those who do choose to actively be in cahoots with the government reap benefits, such as Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali, which has got both publicity and subsidy.

There seem to be different standards for those who toe the government line and those who dare cross it.

Back to Kamra (who is unlikely to get a corporate show for a while), there are many sides to this debate. Even liberals haven’t reached a consensus over what happened on flight 6E-5317.

Was he justified in heckling Arnab? Maybe. Maybe not.

Was Arnab’s non-reaction classy or cowardly? Could be either.

Were the commercial airlines justified in putting Kamra on a no-fly list? Maybe, and in saner times and under different circumstances, yes.

Should companies defer to governmental pressure to keep them and their employees safe and not have a bunch of right-wing goons ransack the office, harass their families, boycott them on Twitter, and revoke their licenses, at a time when the economy is already stuttering? Again, I find it hard to give a definitive answer.

But one thing’s for certain: There seem to be different standards for those who toe the government line and those who dare cross it. Those latter will find lathi charges, FIRs, flight bans, revoked licenses and IT Cell scum chasing them. The former, however, will find life fairly easy, will get favours, will be granted entitlement and will be able to get away with murder. Figuratively, literally, or in Pragya Thakur’s case – both.

Kudos though, to the comedian for several things. For standing up, for keeping Arnab silent for 20 seconds and, at a time when Air India is up for sale, giving us Indian aviation’s most exciting moment. As he himself said once in a famous sketch, “Itna content kahan se milta hai?”

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