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I Was Attacked Online for a Gig.
This is my response.
This past Saturday, 17 September 2022, I emceed a program for the Param Shakti Peeth of America Foundation, as one does. I got the opportunity through a man here in LA who’d been trying to book me at an event for years; we finally connected on this one. Initially, I thought it was for Ekal Vidyalaya, another organization with whom I’d been in talks for two decades as we were never able to find the right occasion. (We finally did so last month in my hometown of Cincinnati; fortunately, the gala was a great success: my one-hour comedy set was well-received, and more importantly, we raised a lot of money for the charity.) The man sits on both boards and we spoke so much about Ekal, which is why I was under that impression. But ultimately, PSPA was the organization that invited me.
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The Trouble Begins
I started doing some digging when I received this email on 12 September, five days before the event:
Immediately, I googled to learn more. After a couple days of consideration, I replied:
It did not end there. The Indian American Muslim Council began tweeting at me:
They even organized a protest:
This sort of thing led to more tweets:
And more replies:
And the topper? Since 13 September, I’ve received over a thousand automated emails, claiming to be from various email addresses and mailing addresses. And they’re still rolling in to such an extent that I set up a block filter so I no longer see them.
OK, so those are the facts. What’s my response to all of this? With full knowledge of the fact that most of my Leftist Hollywood friends (and their equivalents on the Right) will likely shun any nuanced point-of-view that conflicts with their agenda and with full knowledge of the perils of the internet, replete with bad actors’ taking things out of context and twisting my words, here goes.
I’ll be the first one to admit what I don’t know. And I don’t know a lot. I don’t know much about current Indian politics, let alone the deep histories of both India and Hinduism. For much of my life, what I don’t know has prevented me from speaking on what I do know. I’ve endeavored to approach the world with a degree of humility, tempering my stances and moderating my words. Well, given how many morons are speaking out everyday about things they know nothing about, I’m feeling a bit emboldened today to drop the façade and tell you what I really think.
One of the key tenets of Hinduism is Tolerance. I pride myself on being as understanding a person as I can be. I’m continuously striving to “get” where people are coming from. I might not agree with you, but it’s my inherent curiosity and boundless pursuit of the truth that push me at least to know what you are saying.
As the first email I received pointed out, my career has been built on inclusion: diversity, multiculturalism, and religious freedom. It isn’t an “I have a Black friend” argument when your whole life has been defined by these principles. My bona fides speak for themselves, in the examples I listed above as well as my personal life, in which I’m proud to call many Muslims my friends. Hell, over a decade ago, the Muslim Public Affairs Council even asked me to emcee one of its programs. A person would have a very difficult time credibly proving I’m any kind of Islamophobe.
As a comedian, I’m an equal opportunity offender. Though I do subscribe to Lindy West’s assertion that not everyone can take a punch equally and therefore remain vigilant of who the objects of my jokes are, there’s very little I hold sacred and even less you can say to offend me. The last video I released from my li’l independent talk show featured fellow comedian Zarna Garg and me poking fun of Hindu Gods:
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Substack allows TikTok embeds; for the 190+ comments (and 170K+ views), please click here for Instagram.)
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but of course, we’ve received our share of negativity from uptight Hindus lacking a sense of humor. (Maybe #HumorlessHindu can be the nemesis of #FunnyIndian.)
Antifi (Antifa + Funny Indian)
In 2015, when I accepted the invitation to open for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I had no idea what his politics were. Check out this one-minute Seinfeld clip. I’m the clown and George Costanza represents all the people harassing me about it later:
And in 2018, following up on the success of my Make Chai Not War tour (a Hindu-Muslim comedy showcase I co-created with Azhar Usman), the U.S. State Department invited me to perform a couple more times: one at an all-girls college and the other at the American Center in New Delhi. At the first one, given the sensitivity of addressing young women, I held back a bit. In the car on the way over to the next one, my Embassy contacts told me I could let loose a lot more. Well, I did. I made it into the Economic Times, a grammar-challenged paper, when I called Modi a fascist:
This example should illustrate that, right in the lion’s den, I have called people out for what I perceive to be their wrongs.
And now with this latest controversy, take note that my critics made the conscious choice to attack me on Twitter and try to drown my inbox. I don’t deserve that. And not one of them reached out to speak to me. I DMd the Muslim Council:
Did I receive anything back? No. It was very similar to the time after the 2020 election, when I personally apologized to anyone who might’ve been offended by my incessant attacks on Donald Trump. What’d I get in response? Nothing, in most cases. In the best case, I received a thumb.
Not even this so-called media professional above, Sarita Pandey, had the dignity to try to get to the bottom of the story. She’d rather pile on without asking any questions. She wrote, “As a working professional.” Are you trying to establish some kind of camaraderie with me because you have a computer? You know nothing about my personal situation. Do you know how tough it’s been for live performers ever since the beginning of the pandemic? Do you know I have a wife and a baby to support? Stop trying to act like you understand any of the pressures I face because you’re a “working professional,” whatever the F that is.
And do you have any idea what kind of bind you all put me in, mere hours before I’m to take the stage? If I take the job, I draw the ire of one side. If I refuse it, I incur the wrath of the other. What would you have me do? The agreement was signed; the commitment was made. And yet, the committee informed me that nobody else was receiving these messages. It speculated I got the most attention as the most public figure at the event. The irony, of course, is that I was the MC. I had no power to rescind anyone’s invitation.
FYI, I seriously did consider extricating myself, consulting with the Hindu American Foundation (shout-out to Suhag and Rishi). I don’t need the drama, and frankly, I’m afraid: yes, of the bodily threats I received (in a post-slap, post-tackle, and post-stab world)… but hey, I believe in the supernatural. To me, if you believe in God, then you also believe in spirits, ghosts, vibes, the whole lot. It’s a package deal. Either everything is natural OR some things are natural and other things are supernatural. And who’s to say, if I didn’t show up, would Sadhvi Ritambhara put a spell on me?
Getting back to reality, one of the organizers said something fascinating: “Oh, we’re protesting each other all the time.” Surprised at this new development, I asked him to elaborate. He said this was the nature of being on opposite sides, and in fact, isn’t that the beauty of democracy? One organization does something and the other has the right to demonstrate peacefully.
Think it through, though. If I did invoke the force majeure clause of my contract, do you have any idea what would happen to my reputation? “Oh, he’ll just cancel” is what they’ll say for years, if not decades. The show was in my backyard here in Los Angeles. If I piss off my community, what do I have? Are all of these detractors going to give me a gig to replace this one? It isn’t only about “money and fame.” How can you be so shallow to accuse me of that? It’s about honoring your duties, especially when I cannot find definitive information one way or the other. Which leads me to my next point…
Where the hell can I get unbiased information? After searching through a number of articles and YouTube videos, I found it difficult to draw any kind of real conclusions. Did Sadhvi Ritambhara, affectionately known as Didi Maa, incite violence that led to the deaths of myriad people in 1992? Did she say abominable things about Muslims? I don’t know. And perhaps I would know if people would’ve engaged me in dialogue instead of ambushing me. Maybe next time, use more honey and less vinegar. Comedians are contrarians. The more you try to coerce us into going in one direction, the more we wanna go in the other*.
Anyway, here’s what I do know: we raised millions of dollars for charity. And if you’d seen the videos they played of Didi Maa’s work, I think it’d be hard for you not to be moved. Her organization provides housing for women and children who’ve literally been thrown in the streets. They are domestic violence victims and children with severe special needs. So, did she say terrible things? Maybe. (And if she did incite a mob to burn down a mosque, there’s zero doubt that is unequivocally immoral. The problem is I can’t find any consensus on this.) But is she also doing more good than all of these people who’d rather bombard a comedian with nonsense than fly to India and get down in the dirt and help people? Probably. It’s easy to rail about your values, but what are you actually doing to improve people’s lives? Maybe get off your keyboards and get on with some real work. As they say…
Moreover, though you might’ve read it in my reply to Shazia, it bears repeating:
In this day and age of echo chambers, I think one of the worst things we can do is take away free speech. Even hate speech — against Muslims, against Hindus, against Christians, against atheists — is protected by America’s First Amendment. If I refuse to participate in the event, I remove my powerful voice, powerful because of the values you wrote that I do embody. I always strive, in both my comedy act and emceeing, to be as inclusive as possible. The emcee with whom they’d replace me might not feel as emboldened to champion the rights of minorities, including Muslims, et al. The antidote to hate speech is not silence. It’s more speech. As such, if you organize an event, I am more than happy to consider speaking to and with the people who attend.
And guess what: that’s exactly what (my old roommate) Hasan Minhaj did. Remember the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner? There was an unspoken agreement among comedians to stand in solidarity against Donald Trump. Several prominent comics turned down the invitation to speak. Minhaj crossed the picket line. Few people discuss it now that it’s five years later, but the decision was controversial — and correct! It led to his meteoric rise as a celebrity, and more importantly, he got a chance to express his ideas around diversity, multiculturalism, and religious freedom.
Of course, my Saturday occasion was much smaller. Still, there were 400+ people and I had a great time. I would’ve missed out on an amazing evening of not only entertaining people but also contributing something to India. And I know this is one data point (and yes, I can see how this might venture into “I have a Black friend” territory), but consider this: a thirty-something Muslim man named Imran shook my hand and told me how much he enjoyed me. I saw him sit through Didi Maa’s speech. Now, if she was really spewing hatred, do you think he would’ve stood for it? Why would he stay in the room and shake the MC’s hand if what she was saying was truly that objectionable? As I’ve frequently stated, my greatest shame is that I don’t speak Hindi. (Hey, I was born in 1976 in Ohio; my theory is that kids born after 1984 in this country do.) But I did have somebody translate; she said nothing the speaker said was remotely controversial. In fact, the sole mention of Muslims I heard all night was when speaker Shekar Reddy asked the crowd, “Do you know how much money Muslim Americans send to India, annually?” He cited the number of $1.8 billion. He challenged Hindus to match that. It wasn’t said with malice. Shekar merely provided a benchmark and threw down the gauntlet. It had no trappings whatsoever of being a political evening. It was spiritually fulfilling. And I believe some folks in our motherland will sleep better after the work we did.
Ultimately, Sadhvi Ritambhara might’ve disparaged one community while serving another. Does the latter make up for the former? I don’t know. And neither do you. Only God can judge.
Priyadarshini Roy (national anthems singer), Rajiv Satyal, Anil Parekh.
Denouncing Hindu Nationalism
So, what do I think about what’s going on in India? Specifically Hindutva (Hindu nationalism)? One bit of history of which I am aware, and which seems even more germane given Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral this week, is that India is the most-invaded nation in history. Much of this has to do with India’s natural resources. But certainly, its welcoming nature has played a significant role. This brings me back to my initial point about Tolerance.
Every now and then, I like to relax, kick my feet up, drink some chai, and throw on a li’l American History X. The brutal film from 1998 depicts how a former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did. Naturally, what I’m about to say is in no way a defense of White supremacy (or any kind of supremacy, except for maybe the sour cream at Taco Bell: that stuff is supreme). The first time I saw the movie, I was appalled by all of the right-wing hate. But in subsequent viewings, I latched onto the line when the younger brother attempts to explain the origin of the White gang: “White punks...sick of gettin' their asses kicked by Black and Mexican gangs at school.” So, it’s subtle, but you realize the White gangs were created as a counterbalance to the other gangs.
I’m absolutely not retracting what I said about Modi’s fascist tendencies. And I’m not granting clemency carte blanche to burning down mosques or terrorizing the minorities of India. Many times, I’ve spoken out in favor of finally granting the Dalits their due. “Well, that’s what the higher castes get for centuries of discrimation.”
Furthermore, Hindus are not above lying: they’re employing scare tactics (“60% of all children born are Muslim!”), which can easily be disproven by examining a reputable Pew Research Center study. But what I am saying is that Hindus, though peaceful in a way I’m not sure Muslims and Christians are (look at history books and their own books), can take only so much. They’re “sick of gettin’ their asses kicked.” It’s important to note we’re not playing offense; we’re playing defense.
The parallel to America is undeniable. Much of the explanation of Trump’s ascent can be traced back to the fact that Christians in the United States feel under attack. In pop culture, you can go after them but not Muslims and Jews.
What makes Modi’s reign a bit more reasonable is the following: yes, India is a secular place, much like the States. But as a defense of the majority religion, India is unique. If the US government doesn’t defend Christianity, they need not worry: there are plenty of Christian countries. Same thing with Islam.
However, India is the solitary large Hindu nation (Nepal and Mauritius are small), surrounded by Muslim nations. Much like there’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, India is known as Hindustan, a.k.a., the Land of Hindus.
If the Indian government isn’t going to serve, again, as a counterbalance and stand up for Hinduism, who will? Indian Hindus have long been too quick to acquiesce to others’ standards. Here’s an example: the term “South Asian.” Sure, if a bunch of Brown people are in a room, hailing from a cross-section of the eight South Asian countries, then by all means, be inclusive and use “South Asian.” But we’re doing it all the time now, which sounds even more ridiculous when you consider Indian Americans are 71% of the total South Asian American population. Like, even when we’re nearly three-fourths of a populace, we’re the ones who are expected to accommodate everyone else. If we’re South Asian, aren’t “Asians” actually “East Asian”? However, do you ever hear a Chinese or Japanese person saying “East Asian”? Nope. So, why are we bending over backward to include everyone when nobody else seems to be changing how they declare their identity? Why can’t we proudly proclaim I AM INDIAN without feeling like we’re committing some kind of hate crime?
And it doesn’t stop at the Indian Ocean. The tragic irony of the United States is, though it’s the land of empowerment, everyone’s a victim now. We live in a grievance culture where everyone believes they need powerful voices speaking up for them. And many groups do. I applaud the good work that advocacy groups do on behalf of women, Muslims, the queer community, the Black community, and so on. But who’s advocating for Hindus? Did you know that, in Hollywood, Pakistani actors can submit for Indian roles but not vice versa? However, you can’t even ask that question or question why there are so few successful Hindu comedians (as I did) without some backlash.
If you’re Christian, you have the Republican Party. If you’re Muslim, you have the Democratic Party. Hindus have slipped through the cracks. It’s why so many Indian Uncles and Aunties are voting for the GOP now. Their social values generally line up better with the Dems, but they refuse to do much for us. We’re starting to feel like Fredo in The Godfather Part II:
Me Against the World
“Listed as a manic-depressive with extreme paranoia
Hey dog, I got somethin’ for ya.”
And this is what happens when we don’t talk. You lose. At the end of the day, Didi Maa spoke. The protest failed. And you piss the other person off. After I communicated my concerns to the organizers, they arranged to send two board members and two armed guards to come pick me up in Burbank and drive me all the way to Long Beach. I had a guard assigned to me at all times. I’ve had this happen one other time, and I gotta tell you the upside: you look dope AF.
On the real, though, and just as a final warning to those who want to come at me: I’m a peaceful guy. I’m a small guy. But I also come from a line of Punjabi soldiers and I’ll go to battle for myself and my family at a moment’s notice. And though it might seem laughable at first, anyone who’s seen the angry me can attest that you don’t want to push me too hard. If I get mildly upset, it’s kinda cute: someone this little doesn’t have a temper; he has a tantrum. But once I’m super pissed off, what people tell me is remarkably consistent: “You transform into a completely different person. It’s terrifying.”
It’s gonna be very interesting to see what happens with all of the email addresses that now reside in my inbox, let alone the mailing addresses. Was that really your move: to send your personal information to an Indian with a ton of computer engineering friends?
To put it more bluntly, I’ll quote Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Departed:
“You accuse me once, I put up with it. You accuse me twice, I quit. You pressure me to fear for my life and I will put a f*cking bullet in your head as if you were anybody else.”
Conclusion: A Brighter Tomorrow
Now that we understand each other (#tolerance), I’ll close with this message to all of the people who attempted to bully me online (and I wonder what the Left will say, given all of its anti-bullying rhetoric):
If you continue to antagonize me, you’ll lose one of your staunchest supporters. I indeed stand for diversity, multiculturalism, and religious freedom. Most Hindus promote pluralism. Let’s bury the hatchet and move on. Invite me to sit down with you. Invite me to break bread. Invite me on your podcasts. Invite me to host one of your events. You’ll see I don’t subscribe to Cancel Culture. My North Star will remain the Truth in all its forms. I’ll always defend anyone — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Jew, atheist, et al. — against injustice and intolerance. Let’s get there together. Just don’t stick me between a rock and a hard place.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian and MC. He resides in Los Angeles.