Is Apoorwa a stand-up offender?

Viewers need to be mindful that a comedian's overarching intention is to amuse, not to offend. They are expected to tell jokes, not state truths.

Manjeet Mishra

  • Read Time 5 min.

Stand-up comedian Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh landed in trouble for allegedly satirizing Newari culture–from their delicacies to dialect. He was remanded to ten days judicial custody on charge of endangering social order and harmony after some activists filed a complaint demanding action against him. Apoorwa, on his part, deleted the video from his YouTube channel and sought apology for hurting sentiments of the Newari community. Police arrested him again on Monday on the same charge.

He received a barrage of online barbs from the outraged community members and was called names, typical negative stereotypes that Madhesis face. However, there has also been an outpouring of support for him from the members of the same community and outside.

I watched the video and found it well within the norms of decency. However, due to its subjective nature, it is open to multiple interpretations. Viewers need to be mindful that a comedian’s overarching intention is to amuse, not to offend. They are expected to tell jokes, not state truths. Half the jokes told by mankind draws upon national, ethnic, religious, social and sexual slurs. For centuries, comedy and satire have enjoyed special license to transgress the frontiers of civility, decency and decorum.

There have been several shows and comic scenes in Nepali movies that have made fun of Madhesi culture. Despite hue and cry from the community members, there have never been any arrests, even though some shows have been taken off-air after the backlash.

Now, this may sound like a lecture to many, that too a hypocritical one, considering that I have been  vociferous in my previous columns in denouncing stereotyping of Madhesis. I may be accused of resorting to ‘hurt sentiment’ when my culture is satirized while playing cool when other communities are roasted. Let’s clear the air.

First, stereotyping of Madhesis does not end with their dialect, delicacies and complexion. It goes a step further and labels them as Indian stooges, and therefore of questionable patriotism. Due to this persistent vilification, they are not afforded the full collective recognition and individual respect enjoyed by members of more established groups. Many times this has resulted in institutionalization of violence against them.  

Second, Nepal’s cultural nationalism revolves around the Panchayat era’s ek desh, ek bhesh, ek bhasha (one nation, one dress, one language). Most of the ethnic groups of hill and mountain regions have adopted this and are part of the cultural mainstream. Madhesis somehow are yet to be assimilated fully. In a country where cultural homogenization is prioritized, owing to their different culture, Madhesis are viewed with disdain and their culture is seen as inferior. This creates an environment of hostility towards them and makes them vulnerable.

Lastly, I have criticized Madhesi stereotyping with due civility and have never supported intimidation and retributive violence against the offender. This only strengthens the norms of free speech.

When offended, criticism with due civility is a normal thing to do. One doesn’t have to treat the offender like an angelic genius. But resorting to intimidation is crossing the line and is a result of cultural chauvinism.

Newars are among the well-respected ethnic groups of Nepal. Even though a minority, their contribution to national politics, business and a way of life in general is immense. So what explains this perceived sense of inferiority, taking slight at the flutter of a feather?

The devastating effects of humiliation on human lives can hardly be exaggerated. It results in deep insecurities and self-imposed inferiority complex in the lives of dominated people. The social memory of the atrocities committed by the expansionist King Prithvi Narayan Shah on Newars–preserved through art and literature–is probably still too strong and animates the community at some real and perceived sense of infringement by members of other communities. In a nutshell, they are yet to win a war on humiliation.

As a country we are torn between interaction and isolation. Despite centuries of co-existence, Nepal is still a federation of ethnicities rather than a conglomeration of citizens. We have in general fostered and prioritized community-based unique identification and most of us prefer living among ‘our own’. This exclusive sense of belonging can be a source of belligerent distortion and carry with it the perception of distance and divergence from other groups. Within-group solidarity can help feed between-group discord.

Not by law 

The most befuddling aspect of this entire incident is, rather than protecting free speech, how law played in the hands of ‘dying to be outraged’ people. It is important to examine the National Penal (Code) Act, 2017, based on which Apoorwa was arrested. Clause 65 of the code states that no person, by words, either spoken or written, shall discriminate against another on the ground of religion, color, caste, community or language, or disturb social harmony. This is at best a vaguely worded law. There is little clarity about what amounts to discrimination.

If cultural stereotyping, that too on a stand-up comedy platform, which by its very nature aims to transgress traditional norms of civility is discriminatory, what does one make of vile abuses and insults heaped on Apoorwa in front of the police by a mob–the video of which was widely shared on Twitter–while he was being arrested? The aim was clearly to intimidate.

There have been several shows and comic scenes in Nepali movies that have made fun of Madhesi culture. Despite hue and cry from the community members, there have never been any arrests, even though some shows have been taken off-air after the backlash.

This is probably because of the meek nature of offense-taking by Madhesis. They generally resort to acting as a victim, find few sympathizers and it ends there. Their protests on social media feel more like a grudge against the system and the underlying theme is ‘look, how we are treated here’.

Unlike Madhesis, Newars upped the ante and got Apoorwa arrested not through the strength of their argument but through the argument of their strength. The theme here was more ominous ‘how dare you’. This is something close to the heckler’s veto. The law resorted to appeasement of the hecklers to restore peace. Clearly, the law here is honored more in breach than in observance.

The underlying message is if you can incite violence, threaten, intimidate or show that you are deeply offended, you will have your way. This law is not protecting  us against hateful speech. It is inciting us to produce it and in turn provoking bans.

The crucial question is: what follows from this? Community leaders and politicians will compete to use hate speech legislation, for their own ends. The self-anointed leaders will be encouraged to compete for recognition by the state on generic grounds of ‘if you protect X, why not Y’. The result is what Kenan Malik calls ‘an auction of victimhood’.

As a society, it is important for us to realize that cultures have forever grown through mingling and creativity thrives on the irritation of difference, the surprise of the new. Keeping cultures forever sequestered doesn’t serve the purpose of multi-ethnic society.

It is hopeless for the law to draw a line between liberty and license. Instead of treating us like overgrown children, not mature enough to cope with contrary or offensive views, laws should come into picture at the contested frontiers of free speech. It should protect people’s dignity, not protect them from offense. Jeremy Waldron suggests dignity concerns the objective or social aspect of a person’s standing in society but offense is a more subjective aspect of feeling, including hurt, shock or anger.

Manjeet Mishra is a lecturer based in Rajbiraj.