KOCHI (The Straits Times/ANN): In a 2017 stand-up routine, Indian comedian Kunal Kamra made fun of university students being called "anti-national". "They say these students are going to destroy the country. These students? They owe money to their college canteen, and these people are going to destroy the country?"
Today, Kamra himself stands accused of disrespecting a national institution, the Indian Supreme Court. On Nov 12, Attorney-General K. K. Venugopal green-lighted petitions by eight people accusing Kamra of criminal contempt of court for his tweets about a Supreme Court decision.
The Indian Contempt of Courts Act criminalises any speech which "scandalises" or "lowers the authority of" any court, or interferes with judicial proceedings. Anyone found guilty could face imprisonment for up to six months.
Kamra's tweets suggested that the Supreme Court had given preferential treatment to Arnab Goswami, a TV news anchor and supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Goswami was arrested recently for alleged abetment of suicide and released on bail by the Supreme Court.
One of Kamra's tweets on the day read: "The Supreme Court of this country is the most Supreme joke of this country". Another featured a picture of the Supreme Court flying the flag of the ruling BJP.
The Attorney-General claimed Kamra's tweets were "not only in bad taste but clearly cross the line between humour and contempt of court."
He said: "It is time that people understand that attacking the Supreme Court of India unjustifiably and brazenly will attract punishment."
Kamra responded online: "I don't intend to retract my tweets or apologise for them... I wish to volunteer having the time that would be allotted to the hearing of my contempt petition... to other matters and parties which have not been as lucky and privileged as I am to jump the queue."
Legal experts such as Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave have criticised the apex court's "selective listing of matters" and slowness in hearing cases of constitutional importance, such as the legality of a scheme that allows secret political donations and the bail pleas of aged activists arrested under an anti-terror law.
Convictions for contempt of court are not common in India. But in September, civil liberties lawyer Prashant Bhushan was found guilty of contempt for tweets about the Chief Justice of India and asked to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee.
Kamra has had a running feud with Goswami, who is known for his aggressive prime-time debates.
In January, the comedian posted a video of himself heckling Goswami on a flight, which led to four Indian airlines banning him from their flights.
Not all Indian comics risk punchlines on politics because, as stand-up comic Kenny Sebastian says in a set: "I don't want to get punched, da."
Delhi-based comic and former navy commander Manish Tyagi said he preferred "being neutral".
He said: "Targeting elected leaders like the Prime Minister or joking about religion is easy. They are low hanging fruits, and frankly, should be avoided."
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Tyagi believed that comments like Kamra's were "self-serving" and put "other stand-up comics under the scanner".
He said: "Everyone has the freedom of expression, but if one goes all out against a system or offends people intentionally and repeatedly, they will have to face the consequences."
But Mumbai-based stand-up comic Agrima Joshua said joking about politics was unavoidable.
"Look at the hilarious things politicians do! Sometimes I think they are honey-trapping us into making jokes about them so that they can put us in jail," she said, laughing.
In July, Joshua faced rape threats after a video clip with one of her 2019 jokes referring to Mumbai's statue of 17th century king Chhatrapati Shivaji went viral.
Scared for her family, she apologised to those it offended, but the continuing online abuse is itself a source of comedy now.
"If I'm labelled and abused anyway, I might as well do what I believe in," Joshua said.