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Comedian Vir Das called out sexual violence in India. Now he faces lawsuits

Vir Das in 2014.
Aaron Davidson
Getty Images
Vir Das in 2014.

When comedian Vir Das performed a monologue entitled "Two Indias" on stage at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center last weekend, he spoke of two drastically different sides of his native India: rich and poor, united but also divided over politics, women's rights, Bollywood films and cricket teams.

His gig ended up eliciting two pretty drastically different responses too.

While the crowd at the Kennedy Center went wild with applause, some Indians back home were less enthused. And politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party have filed several legal cases against Das.

In the capital of New Delhi, a vice president of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, Aditya Jha, tweeted clips of himself speaking to a nationalist TV channel, saying he "will not tolerate anyone insulting our nation in another country."

"I will take this fight to a decisive end," Jha said. "I want Vir Das to be arrested so that no one can malign the nation like this."

In Mumbai, a legal adviser with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party filed a police complaint against Das for allegedly "defaming & spoiling the image of India."

"He willfully spelled inciting & derogatory statements against India, Indian women, & the PM of India," lawyer Ashutosh Dubey tweeted, including a photo of the legal paperwork he had filed.

Police confirmed that they have received multiple complaints, but did not say if or when charges might be filed.

The line in Das' monologue that appears to have offended these politicians most was this: "I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang-rape them at night."

It's not totally unfounded. Three years ago, a controversial survey ranked India as the most dangerous place in the world for women, because of the risk of sexual violence. Just this week, a new U.S. State Department travel advisory said that "rape is one of the fastest-growing crimes in India" and urged Americans to "exercise increased caution" overall.

In his monologue, Das also poked fun at the prime minister and the hypocrisy of all politicians, and suggested Indian democracy may be dying.

"I represent a great thing, that is turning into a memory," he said.

But he also spoke of the diversity and resilience of Indians, and how they all live under the same big sky.

After the backlash, Das tweeted a clarification that one commentator called a "whimpering apology to the mob."

Das warned people not to be "fooled by edited snippets" of his video. He reminded them it was a satire.

"People cheer for India with hope, not hate," he wrote. "Remember our greatness, and spread the love."

You can watch a YouTube video of Das' Kennedy Center performance here. And read more commentary about the controversy here, in Indian media.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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