Enforced jokes on Kashmiris: when does a comedian go too far?

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On December 30, Kashmiris were outraged after a clipping of Mumbai-based stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua’s performance at a Srinagar cafe the day before went viral on Twitter. She was heard saying that a Kashmiri man had “ghosted” her and left her wondering “if the army had picked him up.”

The comedian has been, in the past, under fire from Hindu right-wingers over her joke on Maratha rulers. In Kashmir, however, the “joke” didn’t go down well with Kashmiris online, who saw it as a mockery of one of the valley’s most intense tragedies — the enforced disappearances of thousands of Kashmiris by the government forces. 

“The army who picks up Kashmiris and killed them in fake encounters, right? You are not even Kashmiri. Just stop making fun of someone’s trama (sic),” tweeted a Twitter user who only goes by the name Zahir. The event was organised by the Srinagar-based content creators called the Jajeer Talkies at the Winterfell cafe in Srinagar. Both have been criticised by Kashmiris on Twitter for facilitating the mockery of Kashmir’s sufferings as many sought an apology. 

Kamran Nisar, the owner of the cafe, distanced himself from Joshua’s joke. Nisar is known for providing his cafe as a platform to host independent events by young Kashmiris, mostly students and artists. The cafe has previously hosted workshops on mental health as well.

“I cannot deny the fact that the clip, that is doing rounds on social media, is pathetic. It is wrong,” he said, further adding that the joke had been taken out of context. “If I see these twenty-two seconds, it is an understatement but then I see the entire video wherein she endorsed what Kashmir’s struggle is all about.”

In the last three decades, Kashmir has witnessed the disappearances of young men after being arbitrarily picked up by the government forces. It’s a festering wound for the families of such victims, who continue to demand justice for their missing kin. According to the association of such families, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), there have been over 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances in Kashmir since the 1990s. 

Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Ahmad Hussain of Jajeer Talkies, however, defended the performance. He alleged that the “clip was taken out of an entire act, it was open to misinterpretation. She made several jokes about the occupation before that.”

“A joke at the end of the day is supposed to be taken as a joke,” Hussain said, adding that “about the way she said it and then the way people took it and the reasons why was it blown out of proportion, we have issued an entire statement for it.”

Jajeer Talkies had initially deactivated their Twitter account after a flood of criticism but reactivated to post their statement.

“We admit that we could’ve handled what happened better and that we failed you and we once again reiterate our unequivocal apology,” the group said on 1 January. “We apologize for not carrying out our responsibility properly. We also request people not to attack the venue or its owner and label them as something unsavory or nefarious. Winterfell Cafe and its owner have always been gracious to provide a platform for the artists of Kashmir to perform and we will always remain thankful for that.”

Joshua, however, has remained defiant and chosen not to respond to the criticism by young Kashmiris online even as she continued to post images of Kashmir’s landscapes and news reports emerging from the Valley. Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Joshua said that the “joke” was a “punchline” and that she had no intentions of mocking enforced disappearances. Responding to the specific line that created the controversy, Joshua said:

“I am aware of the fact that every community has sensitive elements and Kashmir is obviously going through a hundred times worse than what is happening in the other states of India. I fully agree with the anger of the people, it is right because they are angry with just those 23 seconds that the boy [Zahir] put out. It was a 30 minute set where I have made jokes on the draconian “love jihad” law, mostly the establishment. Of course, I made jokes about the people in power. I am sorry, we have almost become like a fascist state over here where you can’t speak against the atrocities committed here. What I was talking, was empathetic to the people. The people in the room were all Kashmiri locals. My jokes are anti-establishment. Because who do you make fun of? Do you make fun of the people in power or powerless? They make it sound like I made fun of the powerless. My joke was that I was in a relationship with a Kashmiri man and every time he didn’t text me back I used to be worried sick, this was my thought.”

Even as Joshua said “I regret the fact that it went online because it went without my permission”, she maintains that “the joke here was on the people in power, and not on the people disappearing”. Kashmiris, however, beg to differ — the consensus seemingly is that Joshu did, in fact, mock the powerless Kashmiris who continue to struggle for justice. In recent years, many mothers of young men, who have disappeared, have died, waiting — in vain — for their sons to return or justice to be delivered.

In another clip from the performance, Joshua is heard thanking the audience for waiting for her performance but immediately followed it up by saying that Kashmiris have already been waiting for the past seven decades — referring to the political struggle in Kashmir.

Zahir, who has now deactivated his account after a rightwing website Op India called him a “separatist” in a blog in which they took a potshot on Joshua, refuted the allegations of him quoting Joshua out of context. A video of the gig was deleted from Jajeer Talkies’s Instagram account. “They were the ones who deleted the live video shortly after this got viral,” said Zahir, who requested that his surname be withheld. “If I had taken this out of context, they should have kept the live video in their account and show the public.”

The controversy, however, sheds light on how far is too far when a comedian has to make jokes about a region like Kashmir. Is there a point when the jokes stop being funny and more like an insult to the population, suffering at multi-levels?

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