Arrest of comedian Apoorwa Kshitiz reignites the free-speech debateThere appears to be some gap in the interpretation of free speech between new and old generations.
The constitution of Nepal guarantees the freedom of speech and expression as fundamental rights of citizens. But it also bars defamation based on someone’s caste, tribe, community, religion or communally divisive views.
On August 28, the Kathmandu District Court issued an arrest warrant for Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh, a standup comedian, for his allegedly insensitive and derogatory comments on the Newa community.
The District Police Range in Teku arrested the comedian on charge of making derogatory remarks following several complaints against him by members of the Newa community, according to Dinesh Raj Mainali, Superintendent of Police at the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Range.
Singh was arrested based on the National Penal (code) Act, 2017. Clause 65 of the code states that no person, by words, either spoken or written, shall discriminate against another on the ground of religion, colour, caste, community or language, or disturb social harmony.
Clause 165 of the code provides for a punishment of a year in jail or a fine not exceeding Rs10,000 for the offender.
After 12 days of his arrest, Singh was released on bail by the police last Thursday citing his health concerns following Covid-19 infection while in custody. A day prior, the district court had extended Singh’s custody by five days.
On Saturday, two days after he was freed, Singh informed through his Facebook page that his health had improved. He added that he had a lot more to say but that it was “not the right time to speak.” In the same post, he also informed that five more cases against him are still pending.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who supported me,” reads his post.
Whatever happened to Singh is being widely debated across social circles in Nepal with camps forming for and against his choice of satire. The premise of the ensuing debates is whether he should have been detained at all over a piece of satirical humour.
Yadav Lal Kayastha, one among 104 persons who had filed a complaint against Singh, said, “The 12-minute presentation was not a comedy but a multi-pronged attack on the centuries-old Newa culture from different angles.”
“We don’t care about how the rest of the world sees his arrest,” Kayastha told the Post. “But even satire has limits and such remarks on our culture are unjustifiable.”
After the controversy, Singh had deleted the said video from the YouTube channel called ‘Comedy Cafe’.
On August 27, he apologised for his performance through his Facebook page, blaming his lack of research and poor knowledge for his trespass against the Newa community. His apology post has so far garnered nearly 400 comments with most commentators criticising his act.
“How can a person be called a stand-up comedian who literally does not know the difference between infringement and so-called comedy,” said Anu Shrestha on Singh’s status.
However, amidst the backlash, there was also an equal outpouring of support for the comedian. Many lobbied for Singh’s immediate release from police custody. #releaseapurba was trending on Nepali social media feeds until his release last week.
When the court had extended Singh’s custody by five days, journalist Yangesh wrote on Facebook questioning Nepal’s police procedure. “He has already admitted his mistake and removed the video. What more can he do? If the police want to keep him in custody, they should have built a case against him,” reads his post.
Some quarters of social media users have referred to the entire episode as politically-driven with accusations on Newa social activists and political leaders like Suman Sayami, an independent candidate who has filed his nomination in the upcoming federal elections from Kathmandu constituency-8 from the independent category for November-20 general election. He had also contested the mayoral race for Kathmandu in local level elections held in May.
“Activist Sayami might have thought that putting a comedian in jail for remarks he has already apologised for is a big achievement. His motive to put Singh behind bars seems politically motivated,” reads Manavi Paudel’s tweet.
The recent episode and its aftermath are not the first of its kind in the Nepali comic scene. Some versions of the current uproar have played out earlier too against comedians for “insensitive” material.
On June 7, 2019, the police arrested comedian Pranesh Gautam for a satirical video review of the film Bir Bikram 2. Acting on a complaint from filmmaker Milan Chamling ‘Chams’ Rai, Gautam was taken into custody under the controversial Electronic Transaction Act.
Social media picked up the story and the ensuing outrage led to a number of news reports.
Similarly, four months later, on October 24, in the same year, rapper Samir Ghising, known as VTEN was arrested for allegedly promoting ‘anti-social’ values through his song Hami yestai ta ho ni bro.
Prior to VTEN’s arrest, another singer Durgesh Thapa was taken into custody by police also for “promoting” anti-social sentiments.
The controversy surrounding Singh has also highlighted the generational gap between the old and new comics Nepal has produced over the years with narratives built around freedom of speech in the art scene.
In conversation with the Post, actor and comedian Madan Krishna Shreshta does not condone Singh’s content and his usage of comedy but is also not in support of his imprisonment over a piece of a comic act.
“Keeping him in custody for nearly two weeks is unconstitutional. He admitted to his content being biased and poorly researched, and apologised for it. He should not have been detained for so long,” said Madan Krishna.
Ayush Shrestha, a new gen comedian and an engineer, begs to differ with Madan Krishna and says that he sees no fault in Singh’s presentation or content. An artist must be allowed to exercise his freedom of speech and an artist must not face prosecution for his work.
“It’s not an artist’s job to please everyone. Our work as comedians is to break boundaries,” he said. “The good thing about this whole debacle was that it has kickstarted the debate on free speech. Everyone should understand that art has no limitations. You may disagree with a piece of art but taking an offence to it and putting an artist in jail is against the spirit of free speech.”
Similarly, Singh’s contemporary and another standup comedian Adarsa Mishra also expressed his dissatisfaction. “I have known Apoorwa for a long time. He never had the intention to hurt Newa people’s sentiments,” said Mishra.
Mishra believes that the furore over a comedy skit boiled over because stand-up comedy in Nepal is still in its nascent stage. “Until five years ago, people would do comedy on generic issues with the only platform available being censored. Television does not give you as much experimental freedom as streaming platforms such as YouTube does. Singh’s comedy was experimental and poorly received,” said Mishra. “Maybe the audience in Nepal is not ready for such skits.”
The communal angle that the entire episode was framed in was another factor that lent the comedy skit a communally divisive component.
“The issue should not have been seen as one community pitted against another. I am an artist and don’t represent any community or region. My work is my individual thought and my way of expression,” Mishra told the Post.
In contrast to the new-gen artists’ line of thought, Dambar Chemjong, head of the anthropology department at Tribhuvan University, says Singh’s presentation was politically incorrect, and that artists must be sensitive to social cohesion even when generating content for their comedy skits.
“In stand-up comedy roasting political parties, government entities or office bearers is common but Singh should have been sensitive while preparing his content since he himself is a public figure. He belongs to a certain community, and his attack on the Newa community looks politically incorrect,” said Chemjong.
Citing the famous American comedian Bill Maher, Chemjong says, “At one time Maher used the N-word to describe himself and the next day he apologised, but his fan-following had already decreased massively,” said Chemjong.
Chemjong, however, says he was against keeping Singh in custody for long, especially since the comedian issued an apology underscoring his ignorance on the subject matter.
Highlighting the growing intolerance in Nepali society of late, advocate Tanka Aryal, a Right to Information campaigner, says the charge against Apoorwa was not in line with his supposed “crime”. “Nabbing artists and jailing them for their performance shows the growing intolerance of our society,” said Aryal. “He had already apologised. Also, his act was a piece of comedy and not meant to be taken seriously,” said Aryal.
He says he believes the issue was politicised for the benefit of certain individuals.
Aryal, who has watched the 12-minute comedy skit, says Singh can be seen making jokes at his own expense and that of the community he himself belongs to. “He made fun of himself and his Madheshi culture as well,” said Aryal. “He did not single out Newa culture or people.”
In hindsight, he says, even the popular comedian duo Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya’s works were laced with problematic language. “If you look at the duo’s work closely, you may find that you can take offence if you choose to. Comedy like any other art form is subjective. It’s how one perceives it,” said Aryal.
He further said that arresting an artist for his work is an attack on freedom of expression.
Article 17 of the constitution states that no person shall be deprived of his or her personal liberty except in accordance with the law. It also guarantees freedom of opinion and speech.
“Comedy is just a form of expression, but the wider acceptance of comic content is disappearing even before comedy has had the chance to go mainstream in Nepal,” said Aryal.