It is a flying shame that four airline companies banned a passenger for “unruly behaviour” without any proper enquiry. Three of them did it on the mere say-so of a Union Minister. No due process was observed. And, we think this happens only in a banana republic.
Doubtless, some TV channel anchors dedicated to the ruling cult have ceased to be journalists and, as rabid propagandists, would surpass North Korean lapdogs. But, can that be reason enough for a Union Minister – in this case, Hardeep Singh Puri with the charge of Civil Aviation – to behave like the Rottweiler of a private TV channel’s anchor, Arnab Goswami? And, order airlines to ban stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra for “heckling” Goswami on board a flight without any due process whatsoever?
Chronology samajhiye. On January 28, aboard IndiGo’s Mumbai-Lucknow flight, comedian Kamra confronts Republic TV’s Goswami. Kamra then posts a video on Twitter of his monologue “heckling” Goswami. IndiGo then states on its website that the comedian is banned for six months. Soon after, Puri tweets that the government is left with no option but to “advise” other airlines to impose similar restrictions on Kamra. Air India, SpiceJet and GoAir do the minister’s bidding and ban Kamra on their flights “until further notice”.
Two airlines, AirAsia India and Vistara, did not jump to please Puri and put Kamra on a no-fly list, as acting on the minister’s tweeted advise would have been against the regulations. Only on the basis of written orders, it is said, can airlines skip the process laid down by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
The incident tells us a lot about Goswami, Puri, India’s airlines, the civil aviation authority and our government – and how all these can gang up to terrorise a flyer if he irritates a celebrity-propagandist for the ruling party. The incident also tells us of a minister’s contempt for due process – for reasons best known to him.
DGCA rules require issues, such as unruly behaviour on a flight, to be investigated by an airline’s internal committee. Indigo did not follow any rules or prescribed procedure, according to the flight’s pilot in charge, who was not even consulted. The three other airlines treated the minister’s tweet as an order.
The pilot, Rohit Mateti, has, in an email to IndiGo, set down the incident in detail showing that there was no case for a ban on Kamra. Objecting to the ban, Mateti states that while Kamra’s conduct was “unacceptable and verbally abusive”, he complied with the crew’s instructions and the offence did not fall within even Level 1, which entails three months’ debarment.
Thus, IndiGo is guilty of transgressing regulations, as may be Air India, GoAir and SpiceJet. The way the minister acted points to Goswami’s clout in the corridors of power. If this is what Puri does for Goswami, how much further would be go for Goswami’s employer or bosses?
Puri is not a political heavyweight, yet airlines jump to do what he tweets. Why? Is it because they have much to fear in terms of compliance or on other counts? If their records are clean why should they -- especially, airlines that had nothing to do with the incident -- execute a dubious order? Could they not even check with the DGCA what is expected of them?
Puri is a seasoned diplomat who has distinguished himself in the Indian Foreign Service. Yet his words and deeds are hardly befitting of the office he holds.
One did not see either the airlines or a minister act with such alacrity when a Member of Parliament beat an Air India staff with his chappals in September 2017. Air India did not act so swiftly then as it did against Kamra now. When MP Pragya Thakur created an incident on board a flight, no action was taken. Neither the airline nor the minister did anything though the incident delayed the flight.
Puri often comes to the fore, in wrong situations, to prove his loyalty in ways that do not earn him or his office any respect. For instance, on November 30, when industrialist Rahul Bajaj spoke, in the presence of Amit Shah, of an atmosphere of fear, and about the BJP and the Prime Minister favouring Pragya Thakur, Puri was one of those who tore into Bajaj.
Shah and Thakur are perfectly capable of defending themselves. They have no need for such as Puri. However, his “rising to the occasion” to prove himself in such situations may well be the secret of Puri’s success in the present order.
(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV. Views expressed are personal.)