File: Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh
By Neha Rayamajhi 31 October 2022
The news of Nepali comedian Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh’s arrest on October 20th of this year has shaken up many in Kathmandu. Singh had been taken into custody for ten days in August and put behind bars again this week. Though the Kathmandu District Court has released him on bail of Rs. 250,000, prosecutors still seek five years of imprisonment for the young artist. His crime- a standup skit that hurt the sentiments of (some from ) the Newa community.
With a rapid increase in arrests of artists in Nepal recently, Singh’s plight has spurred conversations about the country’s free speech. A debate on its various interpretations and contexts has especially taken over social and political platforms. While some list the limitations surrounding this concept, others argue that there should be no boundaries regarding freedom of expression.
For me, the prosecution and defense of Singh is not an issue of free speech. It is, first and foremost, a gross misuse of power. Second, it is a misuse of the fact that sometimes, free speech can be and is weaponized against the well-being of society.
Nepal’s constitution under Article 17 gives its citizens “freedom of opinion and expression.” However, like everywhere in the world, this human right comes with a list of restrictions, and rightly so sometimes. For instance, the Nazi salute and symbols are illegal in Germany, Austria, and Poland. An individual cannot use it under the banner of free speech, given the dark history of violence against Jewish people.
The rise of White Nationalism and hate crimes against marginalized communities in the US post-2016 election campaigns can also serve as an example of how a particular political party abused the right to free speech for electoral gain. Any attempt to challenge the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and ableist remarks by the party members was dismissed as an attack against freedom of opinion and expression, increasing violence against immigrants, people of color, and trans folks in the country.
Freedom of speech without boundaries can be dangerous. In a world filled with power imbalances, oppressions, and divisions, it can be utilized to perpetuate these ills further, especially in the form of comedy.
Jokes are seen as harmless. They give the speaker more spaciousness to be bold. A man may not be able to say something sexist with a severe face. But say the same thing in the form of a joke. It is not only acceptable but also applauded.
Identity-based jokes are risky. They divide the audience into “us” and “them” categories; the ones who are laughing versus the ones who are being laughed at. This can be harmful when the subject of the ridicule is an identity group already historically marginalized and structurally still discriminated against. Apart from alienating people from their already oppressed identities, this kind of joke also normalizes dangerous ideas and power dynamics. The tired routine of using an overdone, fake Nepali accent while speaking “bad” English is popular among Nepali comedians and TikTokers who seem to come from elite and English-speaking backgrounds. This is an example of what is referred to as “punching down” in comedy- to make jokes at the expense of those who are in a position of social, political, or economic weakness relative to oneself.
But that is not what Singh did.
This 28-year-old from Sarlahi district, a Madesh province, does not hold enough social, political, or economic power to “punch down” the strong Newa community of Kathmandu. Madhesis are arguably one of the most disfranchised identities in Nepal, with thousands of them constantly having to fight for the most basic citizenship rights. While the Newa community, rich in complex social hierarchies internally and at the receiving end of oppression and discrimination from the Bahun and Chettri caste groups, is not in a weaker position compared to the Madhesi community in Nepal.
Making jokes about people and identities that hold structural power over you is not the same as joking about stereotypes used to dehumanize and oppress communities. One has the possibility of challenging the status quo, while the latter usually perpetuates it.
Singh’s skit was not the kind of identity-based joke that caused harm. It was not an example of weaponizing free speech against the well-being of Nepali society. At best, it was a distasteful joke that was not very funny. Offensive, even.
And offensive jokes should be discouraged. But the discouragement should not be in the form of state-sanctioned policing or mob violence and death threats. This, instead, should be a culture work, a collective conversation on the politics of what is funny. And an interrogation of the power of our opinions and expressions, even our jokes, especially our jokes. A reflection so that we build a society where freedom of speech can be a human right even without boundaries.
In an interview with Prabin Dhungel of The Annapurna Express in 2019, Singh gloated about the comedy scene in Nepal. He talked about hoping for a “bigger audience,” more interactions between the comics and the audience,” and more “routines that mix satires with social messages.” Here is to hoping for a safe return of this talented artist back on stage so that he can make all that happen.
Neha Rayamajhi is an organizer and a cultural worker from Nepal. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Development and Social Change. Neha’s writings and multi-medium art projects revolve around decolonial politics, diasporic nostalgia, and the joys of reimagining anti-oppressive futures. She is the 2018 recipient of the Daastan Award for Short Story.