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Kunal Kamra's martyr spirit

Updated on: 23 November,2020 06:01 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

While martyrs in the past have courted death for religion or nation, the comedian is risking incarceration to ensure liberty for all, giving the sense that it is meaningless when it is limited to the privileged

Kunal Kamra's martyr spirit

Kunal Kamra. File pic

Ajaz AshrafColumnists have been quick to rise to the defence of comedian Kunal Kamra in his battle against the Supreme Court. I am one among them: I called him a "Laughing Gandhian" in a piece I did for another media outlet. This sobriquet, indeed, defines Kamra. He dissents with humour; he strives to tickle us through his depiction of what he thinks is the Supreme Court's failure to protect liberty from the executive. He is also willing to pay the price for speaking what he believes is the truth, evident from his November 13 response to Attorney General KK Venugopal granting permission to applicants wishing to initiate contempt proceedings against him. Kamra tweeted to say he intended to neither apologise nor hire a lawyer to defend him. He has, in effect, pleaded guilty.

Kamra's protest against injustice embodies the Gandhian philosophy, which, however, also eschews intemperate language. Kamra crossed this line on November 18, when he tweeted an image and 19 words which, when read together, seemed to tell Chief Justice of India Sharad A Bobde, "Up Yours", an English slang described as derogatory in all dictionaries. The slang is used to convey a person's dislike (Cambridge), or contemptuous defiance (Collins), or rude reply (Merriam-Webster), or insult (Macmillan) to someone's remark or action. The meaning of the slang is also communicated through a gesture, which turns the insult into a bite far severe than when written or spoken aloud.

This is precisely the effect Kamra achieved through his November 18 tweet, which came five days after he tweeted his response to Venugopal. The timeline suggests Kamra will continue to express his contempt of the Supreme Court, as long as he has the freedom to operate his social media accounts. Given his indifference to incarceration, it is moot whether Kamra, once out of jail, where he can be sent for maximum six months under the Contempt of Courts Act, will be chastened into desisting from hurling barbs at Supreme Court judges.

Kamra is unlikely to desist because his psychology is that of the martyr, who, for instance, sits on an indefinite hunger strike to bring about social change. Celebrated cultural theorist Terry Eagleton, in a piece in The Guardian in 2006, distinguished between political and non-political suicides. The latter, Eagleton said, believe life has become worthless to them and want a quick way out. "Martyrs die not because they see death as desirable in itself, but in the name of a more abundant life all around," Eagleton wrote. He compared the martyr with the suicide bomber, who too courts death in the name of a better life for others. "[But] the martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it… On this theory, what makes existence meaningful is what you are prepared to relinquish it for," Eagleton commented.

Eagleton's principle can be applied to Kamra's obstinate display of contempt for the Supreme Court to fathom his motivation. He seems prepared to court imprisonment in order to pressure the state into guaranteeing liberty to all, not just the privileged few such as Republic TV's Arnab Goswami. In the past, martyrs courted death in the name of religion or nation. Kamra is doing so for liberty. His tweets convey the profound sense that his freedom has a meaning only when liberty also becomes real for others, when it is not taken away from them at the fancy of those in power. It is the Supreme Court's duty to ensure the executive does not shrink liberty, a duty Kamra thinks it has failed to carry out.

Kamra has bet his freedom on a future of justice and liberty for us. He is not destructive because, unlike the suicide bomber, he has not imperilled our life and liberty. His venomous barbs against the judges convey his refusal to adhere to the norm of respecting them, at least as long as they fail to protect liberty. Not for him the civility of the columnist to criticise the Supreme Court. It is as if he is saying to the judges, "I will shame you all, I will go to jail." In conveying this message, Kamra undermines their authority, because of which they are expected to be respected. He erodes their power to punish because he has expressed his willingness to accept punishment. Power scares because people fear it. Once people overcome their fear, Power loses its capacity to frighten. Kamra is asking the Supreme Court to become conscious of protecting liberty or risk its own diminution in the eyes of people like him.

Threats of contempt proceedings will not silence Kamra. Ask the Attorney General, who is the "guardian" of the law and public interest. Venugopal, the guardian, held Kamra, the baby, so tightly that he took to screaming through his tweets, as if to say, "Stifle me if you want, but the Supreme Court needs to change." A point legal luminaries and public intellectuals have hammered upon in the past week. On November 20, Venugopal granted permission to initiate yet another contempt action against Kamra's "up-yours" tweet. Will the baby stop wailing?

The writer is a senior journalist

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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