How Legal was IndiGo's Quick Suspension of Kunal Kamra?

The rulebook stipulates a three-month ban for verbal 'harassment'. Why, then, was the comedian slapped with a six-month suspension?

New Delhi: On January 28, shortly after stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra’s video of Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami on an aircraft went viral on Twitter, the private airliner – IndiGo – took to the social media platform to announce that it had put Kamra on its no-fly list “for a period of six months” for his “unacceptable behaviour”.

Almost immediately after Indigo’s Twitter statement, in which it tagged the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and minister Hardeep Puri, came another announcement on Twitter by the minister himself. Puri said his ministry had “advise(d)” other airliners too to put him on their no-fly list. Soon, airliners like SpiceJet, Air India and GoAir had taken Puri up on his advice.

The jury is out on whether Puri asked the airliners to act against Kamra for his “offensive behaviour designed to provoke and create disturbance inside an aircraft” or whether he was being targeted for being a known critic of the BJP government at the Centre, going after the head of a TV channel who is pro-government.

Though similar incidents have occurred aboard flights involving opposition leaders like Shashi Tharoor, Tejaswi Yadav and also with former student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, neither the government nor the airliners have taken such a drastic step before. Ironically, Tharoor and Yadav had both been heckled by reporters of Republic TV, footage of which was later broadcast on shows hosted by Goswami himself.

Also read: IndiGo Grounds Kunal Kamra for ‘Slandering’ TV Anchor, 3 Other Airlines Join Ban After Minister’s Diktat

However, the initial question to be asked here is: what were the rules that allowed IndiGo take the decision against Kamra within a matter of hours?

In 2017, MoCA had tailored a set of rules to act against disruptive and unruly behaviour of passengers on board. The decision to revise the existing rules was triggered by the unruly behaviour of former Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad in an Air India flight and former TDP MP J.C. Diwakar Reddy in an IndiGo flight.

Then civil aviation minister P. Ashok Gajapathi Raju had reportedly said, “…the no-fly list in India is unique and first-of-its-kind in the world. It is based on the concern for safety of passengers, crew and the aircraft, and not just on security threat.”

The revised rules defined an unruly passenger as:

“A passenger who fails to respect the rules of conduct at an airport or on board an aircraft or to follow instructions of the airport staff or crew members and thereby disturbs the good order and discipline at an airport or on board the aircraft.”

Essentially, the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGCA) revised the existing sections of the Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) as per the provisions of the Tokyo Convention of 1963 and mandated that they would be applicable to all domestic and international airliners. Three categories of unruly behaviour by passengers and punishment for such conducts were included in the revised rules.

A Level 1 offence included being unruly verbally, which would attract three months debarment of up to three months. The rules defined the Level 1 offence as “physical gestures, verbal harassment, unruly inebriation, etc.”

A Level 2 offence includes physical unruly behaviour which would attract debarment of up to six months. These offences were defined as “pushing, kicking, hitting, grabbing or inappropriate touching or sexual harassment, etc.”

A Level 3 offence can attract debarment for over two years. The offence reportedly includes life-threatening behaviour. “Damage to aircraft operating systems, physical violence such as choking, eye gouging, murderous assault, attempted or actual breach of the flight crew compartment, etc.” were defined as offences under this category.

As per CAR rules, the pilot in command of the aircraft would have to file the complaint against the passenger. If the pilot felt that the offence was serious, she or he could relate it to the ground control room of the airliner and seek to land at the nearest aerodrome. On landing, an FIR can be filed and the person handed over to the police.

For minor unruly behaviour too, the pilot would have to first lodge the complaint with an internal committee, which is to be set up by every airliner (under the revised rules) to deal with such issues. The committee is to be headed by a retired district and sessions judge with representatives from a different airline, members of the consumer dispute redressal forum or passengers’ forum or a consumer association. Within a month’s period, the committee must reach a decision, and impose the duration of the no fly period of the passenger in that airline.

The airliner must then communicate the decision to the passenger who would then get a period of 60 days to challenge the committee’s decision to an appellate committee set up by MoCA. The MoCA committee should have a retired high court judge as the chairman aside from members from consumer dispute redressal forum, passengers’ forum, etc.

For any repeated offence, the duration of debarment of a passenger would double. The airliner has to share its no fly list with the DGCA which, in turn, has to put it up on its website. However, there won’t be pressure on other carriers to also put the passenger on their no fly list.

Since IndiGo’s decision on Kamra came within hours, the relevant questions to be asked to the airliner are also these:

  • Does IndiGo have an internal committee to look into such grievances? If yes, did it meet before the airline reached that decision? Did Indigo communicate it to other airliners as per the revised rules, aside from tagging the Ministry? It is clear from the minister’s tweet that the other airlines had to follow the Ministry’s instructions, though as per the revised rules, they are not bound to put a passenger on its no-fly list even after the information is shared by the concerned airline.
  • The CAR rules say verbal unruly behaviour may attract debarment of a passenger for a period up to three months. The punishment up to six months is only for physical unruly behaviour. So why Kamra slapped with a six-month suspension, even if he didn’t do any “pushing, kicking, hitting, grabbing or inappropriate touching or sexual harassment, etc.”?

A further question that needs an answer is:

  • Though the CAR rules were revised in 2017 to specifically handle unruly and disruptive behaviour of passengers aboard a flight, were they not taken fully into cognisance while taking the decision against Kamra?As per section 23 (i) of the Aircraft Rule, 1937, “no person shall on board an aircraft assault, intimidate or threaten, whether physically or verbally, any person” which “is likely to endanger the safety of the aircraft or of any person or jeopardises the good order and discipline on board the aircraft.”However, it didn’t seem enough to stop unruly behaviour, the reason why the revised CAR rules were issued in 2017 under the provisions of Rules 22, 23 and 29 of the Aircraft Rules 1937.

While it is not yet clear under which rules IndiGo debarred Kamra, it seems from the minister’s instruction that the British-era Aircraft Act, 1934, might have been invoked to make the ban applicable to rest of the airlines too. The Act, which handles air operations in the country, allows the DGCA to issue directions from time to time to the airliners under various conditions.

The Wire has sent the same set of questions above to IndiGo, for answers. The report will be updated if and when the replies are received.

Update: The Wire also wrote to the DGCA Group Captain Pankaj Pant, who heads the media cell, on his official email. The questions posed to him were: Did Indigo violate the revised CAR rules while taking a decision to put Kunal Kamra on its no fly list? As per the rules, it is to set up an internal committee. Could it do so in such a short period of time? Also, is six months debarment of the passenger not a violation of the rules for level 1 offence?

The DGCA was also asked if it or the MoCA can pass such an instruction to the airlines under the Aircraft Act 1934.

The DGCA is yet to respond to the queries. However, in an official note, it states that Indigo will now have to form an internal committee to take a decision on the matter. It essentially confirms that the airliner’s decision was not taken by an internal committee. The statement, however, is quiet about which rules the airliner used to announce a six month debarment for the comedian.