Santosh Kumar Mohapatra
riyanka Sharma, a BJP Yuva Morcha leader in West Bengal was arrested May 10 for sharing a morphed photograph of the West Bengal Chief Minister on social media wherein Mamata Banerjee’s face was superimposed on an image of actor Priyanka Chopra during her appearance at the Met Gala event in New York. Priyanka was arrested and sent to 14 days’ judicial custody on the basis of a complaint filed by Trinamool Congress worker Bivas Chandra Hazra with the Cyber Cell of the Howrah City Police alleging that the meme was against community guidelines, Kolkata’s culture and represents violence and it insulted the Chief Minister.
This reflects the heavy-handedness, dictatorial attitude of the West Bengal government. The state police’s move has been widely criticised as an attack on the freedom of expression. The morphed image is indecent, but it does not call for a case or arrest. Police could have asked her to delete the post and cautioned her. For such a inane matter, Sharma was charged with defamation under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code , Section 66A (offensive messages through communication services etc.) and the non-bailable Section 67A (punishment for publishing or transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act).
The morphed photograph is just a cartoon or a political satire that doesn’t defame Banerjee. Similarly, it does not contain any sexually explicit act. However, Section 66A has some relevance here as it might have caused annoyance and inconvenience to Banerjee. In fact, it had no offensive or menacing trait; neither did it manifest any danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.
In March 2015, the Supreme Court has quashed Section 66(A) of the IT Act, terming it “vague” and “unconstitutional”, after vociferous protest by activists who alleged that this Act aimed at muzzling dissent and differences of opinion on the Internet and, thereby, undermines the right to free speech and expression – a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Hence, it triggered a controversy as to how police used this Section to arrest Priyanka and on what basis the learned Magistrate sent her to 14 days’ judicial custody.
The arrest of Priyanka Sharma has reignited the debate on freedom of expression in West Bengal, especially since the Trinamool assumed power. The arrest led to strong denunciation and condemnation from BJP leaders. Union Minister Arun Jaitley tweeted: “Humour, wit, sarcasm survive in a free society. They have no place in autocracies. Dictators laugh at people. They don’t like people laughing at them. Bengal today is a case in point.”
Nevertheless, it is the BJP which has curbed freedom of speech by controlling, battering, pounding media through allurement of advertisement or veiled threats. Anyone critical of BJP government or catering to different views is dubbed as anti-national. Consequently, India’s position in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), is declining continuously. Unfortunately, India was ranked lowly at 140 out of 187 countries in 2018 index down from 138 in 2017 and 136 in 2016. This reflects growing animosity towards journalists and threats of criminal defamation.
Many are aware of the tyrannical attitude of Mamata Banerjee. Under the TMC regime, democracy has been murdered, butchered and freedom of expression is curbed in West Bengal. Left supporters are killed and tortured. Interestingly, the Modi government, including state BJP leaders, were silent as the Left was attacked. On the other hand, when BJP leaders were attacked or arrested, they start preaching freedom of expression. The double standards of BJP is clearly established from the fact that it maintained stoic silence in 2012 when Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor of Jadavpur University, was arrested for forwarding an e-mail containing a cartoon featuring Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Mukul Roy and former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi. Mahapatra was charged with defamation and outraging the modesty of a woman.
Only because the police have the power to arrest does not mean they must exercise it – much less exercise it in a selective manner as an instrument of harassment. Even the role of judiciary in ensuring freedom of speech has come into question. It is well known that such posts are pervasive in social media. It was expected that Supreme Court would grant Priyanka bail and condemn such draconian act of police and state government.
However, the vacation bench of the apex court, comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and Sanjeev Khanna, asked her to tender a written apology as precondition of release from jail. Only after Sharma’s advocate argued that an apology would amount to infringement of the freedom of expression, they released her. Nevertheless, the court told her to tender apology. Even, the Supreme Court did not term the arrest as illegal and unwarranted to protect the freedom of speech. It did not condemn the West Bengal government for its intolerant attitude.
The court has, however, rightly observed that because the person who shared the morphed picture belongs to a political party, the insinuation of posting such a picture is different from that of a common person. As the meme is of the leader of a rival political party, the court had given such an order. Had it been a common citizen the situation and directions would have been different.
The court also observed that a person’s freedom ends when s/he infringes the rights of others. Freedom of speech is non-negotiable but should not be allowed to violate other’s rights. But there is no such concrete yardstick to determine, when one has offended or infringed another person’s rights. It varies from person to person. The fear of getting punished or criminal defamation will prevent others to speak, write freely or post a cartoon. Truth will be suppressed and survival of democracy will be in peril.
Being a politician, one has advantages as well as disadvantages. The advantage is that they have access to power, prestige, publicity and popularity. On the other hand, the disadvantage is that they can be publicly criticised, admonished and denunciated. However, good politicians take these very lightly. Joking, sarcasm, comedy or caricature is a part of a free society. Newspapers publish cartoons and stories making satire of activities of politicians which people enjoy most. A cartoon of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad was published even during the Emergency. Hence, politicians should be broadminded and accept humour, satire gracefully.
The writer is an Odisha-based economist. e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.