IF YOU SET out to make a checklist about the Indian heckler, the first point is that there are two kinds. One is the organised crowd which sit on the sidelines of, say, a Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi rally and, if they spot an opportunity, barge their way in shouting silly slogans. That is as water off a camel’s back to the politician. It is the second category—the lone man in an unexpected setting who corners the powerful and screams silly slogans with a mobile phone camera in tow, wielded either by himself or voyeurs around—that unsettles the system.
The heckler does not look very elegant and that is not just because of the embarrassment that oozes from the act on everyone, from his target to onlookers to the millions who will see the video. The last is important because without it being captured on camera, you might as well not do it.
If Kunal Kamra’s purpose was to just heckle Arnab Goswami, then why film it? He might tout the late Rohith Vemula as the proximate cause of his act, but he also has the thirst of 800,000 Twitter followers to slake. He films the heckling precisely because it is political performance in the age of Twitter by non-politicians. If an impulsive act is being recorded with deliberation, is it impulsive?
But it is bad performance because take what Goswami was made to endure—just a ribald chanting of “coward coward coward…”. If Kamra, a standup artist, were to do this as a routine during a show, who except his best friend and mother would laugh. And he can be funny, as his tweets later—‘Thank you Indigo a six month suspension is honestly very kind of you… Modiji might be suspending Air India forever’—indicate. The encounter was as funny as two years ago when another television personality Rajdeep Sardesai sat eating in a restaurant and a man towered over shouting, “Don’t hate Hindus” while another said “Modi Modi”. But to be fair to those rude and somewhat dense men, they were IT professionals.
A lone heckler against a person of power is still a courageous man. Because it is not just the heckler who has no humour, his victim has even less. The heckling will come with consequences. Remember Jarnail Singh, who got so umbraged during a press conference of P Chidambaram that he got up shouting and screaming and then when his rage tipped over, he took out a shoe and hurled it. The shoe missed but Singh was sacked by the newspaper he worked at. Kamra will need to take the road for a few months, given that almost every airline has banned him, and probably illegally at that. Another heckler, a 28-year-old woman who called the then Bharatiya Janata Party chief of the state and now Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan a fascist during a flight, was jailed after a complaint. If the heckler was a little more savvy, he or she would realise that flights are the most vulnerable places for not just those who they are heckling but also themselves. It gives any government a treasure trove of guidelines to take their revenge.
On the flip side, heckling, despite its dangers, has its rewards. It is a fast track to hero status. Jarnail Singh did end up becoming an Aam Aadmi Party Member of Legislative Assembly. Kamra will now be for posterity that man who gave Arnab Goswami a taste of his own medicine. Already he has got support online from all those leaders, such as Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Gandhi, who have found themselves on the other side of Goswami’s mike. A short video clip and a travel ban has made Kamra a figurehead of the online liberal front. The man who comes the worst off from the entire episode is aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri who armtwisted airlines to settle a private feud. If he thinks this is going to be a deterrent, then it’s only until the next heckler turns up against him.