When Kunal Kamra first realised that Arnab Goswami was travelling on the same plane as him, he must have said to himself: Man, this is too good an opportunity to let go of. Goswami, for a change, looked like a rabbit with sideburns, trapped in blinding headlights. He kept the shades on for good reason.
Goswami, minus the fortification of his studio, reminded me of a tyrannical schoolmaster, found strolling in the local bazar. To his students, the schoolmaster looks strangely vulnerable and human when seen outside the confines of the classroom.
It was a classic face-off between two influencers on different sides of the divide. Both put on an act. Both are in the business of instigating, harnessing and monetising outrage. Both need to keep going viral to stay afloat and pay their bills.
The argument against Kamra, that his method wasn’t right, doesn’t hold any water. Goswami has sent enough journalists into aeroplanes to heckle unsuspecting victims on his behalf. Stand-up comedy is performance art; it’s not limited to the stage. Heckling is part of the performance. The stand-up comic can get away with a lot because the stand-up comic is many roles rolled into one: social commentator, political activist, polemicist, TV anchor, humorist, actor and, of course, influencer.
If anything, Goswami’s lapsing into silence was a sign of things to come, a time when the news anchor will gradually lapse into obsolescence. The news anchor’s profession is already nowhere close to the peak of 2000, when print journalists felt sidelined by television. The problem here for the Hindu Right is that they have no stand-up artists worth speaking of. They have news anchors aplenty to spread their manufactured message but when it comes to the medium of tomorrow (and today), they are left floundering.
The Hindu Right needs to work on it on a religious war footing. Very soon, we could have large auditoriums packed with bhakts, rocking in laughter to Hindi gags about dirty Muslims, playboy Nehru, Urban Naxals, and that amorphous category that even liberals love to hate: the liberal. This will be far more influential than Goswami who, at the end of it, is an Angreziwallah with no real mass appeal to speak of. At the moment, the BJP is losing the stand-up comedy battle. The second face-off that took place was not between influencers but a Jamia student and a katta-waving bhakt. I choose to see it as a face-off between two rebels. On the one side, we had silken-haired singer, Shadab Najar, who was asking the shooter to calm down and talk. "Ruk, jao. Aao baat karte hain baith ke."
As an author, the first thing that struck me about this was that this is exactly how authors approach publishers with their manuscript. As the editor backs away weakly, trying to fob off the author with a pretend gun, the author advances calmly: "Relax, don’t be scared, let’s talk okay? I don’t want to harm you." Before you know it the editor has vanished into a nameless crowd of readers and critics, as the author is left holding her bloodied unpublished manuscript.
Returning to Ground Zero, this face-off was one between literacy and philistinism, the civilised and the savage, tuneful music and the bestial cry, good hair and bad hair. On the one side we had courage and a calm tone, on the other a readymade slogan and incoherent anger. One swears by Greta Thunberg, the other by the holy waters of the frog’s well. One is trying to save the idea of India, the other’s ambition is more limited: to become cock-of-the-walk in the street he was born in.
Like Arnab’s pregnant silence, the different directions in which the two walked is full of symbolism too. Shadab was moving forward, step by painstaking step, towards a potentially explosive situation. The bhakt was walking away from the situation that he’d created himself, until the time he eventually falls off a cliff or the map. Shadab is the courageous one, grappling with the unknown alone, while the bhakt knows that his fall will be broken by a khakhi safety net provided by the State.
The bhakt’s rebellion is against Gandhi and the Muslim; it comes from social media radicalisation where ‘bhagwa boys’ from different Hindu castes — Jats, Rajputs, Gurjars — compete to out-saffron each other: I slapped the imam of a mosque and shot a viral video; now, better me on TikTok. The Jamia shooter’s Facebook page was laced with these videos and rivalries, withering masculine boasts and taunts.
But again, like with stand-up comedy, where the Hindu Right needs to display urgent creativity to develop its own robust tradition, the Hindu Right lone wolf comes across as embarrassingly limp compared to the white supremacists the Jamia shooter was trying to emulate, especially in the FB live broadcasts preceding the incident.
White supremacists are muscular and carry assault weapons, their skin carpet-bombed with tattoos. Having grown up in an East UP small town, I’m familiar with kattas in the classroom. I once picked one out of my classmate’s bag and started waving it around while the teacher was writing something on the blackboard. This was until my classmate noticed and grabbed it back, saying: "What the hell do you think you’re doing; it’s real and loaded!"
A country pistol gives no shobha to a Hindu supremacist. White supremacists also plan their attacks in great detail, well in advance. The plan is to inflict maximum damage in the least amount of time and then have the courage to turn the gun on oneself. To sum up, I’m just repeating what my maths teacher used to say in Class 8: Do whatever you want to do, even if it’s a prank like stuffing sugar in my scooter’s exhaust pipe, but do it well, like a pro.
The urgent need for Hindu supremacists aping the racist white American fringe is twofold: invest in a good meaty diet and buff up. Carry proper weapons. Execute to a plan. Think of new slogans. Second, to counter Kamra et al, the Hindu Right needs to spawn its own stand-up comedy scene and come up with good anti-national/ go-to-Pakistan jokes. The TV anchor is already a fading star. The question though remains: Can an ideology of hate produce genuine peals of laughter, unless it is inadvertent and at its own expense?
The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation & the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India