What does it take to become a woman comedian in India who cracks political jokes? There is no punchline. Instead, there are threats, abuses and social media hate campaigns. Mumbai-based stand-up comic Agrima Joshua’s year-old joke on Chhatrapati Shivaji’s upcoming statue in Maharashtra, and not the man himself, followed a familiar trajectory. There were rape and death threats after the jokes resurfaced, forcing Joshua to issue an apology for her ‘behaviour’ and take down the ‘offensive’ video. It proves yet again that safe space for a woman in India, both online and off it, is a phantasm, a myth.
Finally, after much criticism and public outrage, Shubham Mishra, who had openly called for raping the comedian on social media, was arrested and charged by the Vadodara City Police on Sunday.
Agrima needs to be ‘taught a lesson’
Women with political views on social media are no stranger to threats — rape or death. After all, women are just their reproductive organs.
Following Joshua’s video resurfacing, Shubham Mishra, whose Instagram bio defines him as ‘bekhauf bindaas bebaak’, posted a video last week wherein he hurled the vilest of abuses at not only Agrima Joshua but also her mother and sister, because it is a matter of parenting that leads a woman astray after all.
His lack of fear about describing in graphic detail how he would rape Agrima to ‘teach her a lesson’ is directly proportionate to how Agrima’s apology seems to come more from concern for her personal safety rather than her comedy content.
But Shubham Mishra wasn’t the only one, several men posted similar threats to defend Shivaji.
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The ‘offensive’ video
One look at Agrima’s video made me realise there is nothing offensive about what she says. She does not target Shivaji the personality, but the building of a massive statue for him using funds that can be put to better use elsewhere.
A statue is not a person, and yet those who launched a hate campaign against the comic seem unable to grasp this.
When the construction of the Statue of Unity was going on, many pointed out that the money could have been better spent—the very foundation of a democracy lies in being able to have the freedom to voice dissent.
But clearly, Agrima’s sarcasm was lost, more so because she happens to be a woman, and needs to be shown her ‘real’ place.
But this is a ‘success’ story in the end. Justice will prevail. Home minister of Maharashtra Anil Deshmukh was quick to tell the cyber cell to take action against Joshua for her comments on Shivaji (the statue had been forgotten). It took some more goading before Deshmukh later said that action will also be taken against those issuing threats to Joshua because “Shivaji Maharaj taught us to respect women”.
However, the wheels of ‘justice’ had already been set in motion. Many decided the owners of the place where Joshua performed the ‘offensive’ gig have to be taught a lesson as well. Workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena on Friday vandalised Indie Habitat.
Under such circumstances, what choice exactly did Agrima have but to apologise?
While comedians Kunal Kamra, Mallika Dua and actor Swara Bhasker came out strongly against Shubham Mishra’s video, and the National Commission for Women wrote to the Gujarat police to take action, the damage, in a way, was already done.
The myth of ‘safe online space’
Agrima’s battle is the battle of every opinionated woman in India. A few days ago, journalist Rana Ayyub posted screenshots of several death and rape threats she got after calling out the killing of 65-year old Bashir Ahmad Khan in Jammu and Kashmir.
Former Bigg Boss contestant Vikas Pathak, popularly known as ‘Hindustani Bhau’ gave rape threats to producer Ekta Kapoor, her mother and her son because he felt an episode in her AltBalaji web series XXX 2 disrespected the Army.
Ekta however stood her ground, and refused to comply with the cyberbullying. But Ekta’s power and wealth can still shield her from the threat turning into reality, or of state persecution.
Agrima Joshua does not have that privilege, neither do a lot of women who hold opinions that ‘hurt’ sentiments of one or the other powerful, deeply patriarchal group.
When women are encouraged to fight, I am reminded of an Instagram post by actress Poorna Jagannathan. She wrote, “You can’t call out celebs without acknowledging that rape culture online is terrifying and no one is doing anything about it. That death threats can get to you and you weigh the cost of speaking out vs. your mental health.”
No matter what you think of Joshua’s past tweets, which have also resurfaced now, you don’t need to be her fan to know rape threats are wrong.
And not every woman can fight till the end, not because she does not want to, but if rape/death/potential loss of career or income is the other choice, the option becomes excruciatingly clear.
Views are personal.
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