New Delhi: Supposedly the upholder of a citizen’s right to freedom of expression in Indian democracy, the Supreme Court on Tuesday stunned the libertarian society. It asked BJYM activist Priyanka Sharma, who had created a meme of Mamata Banerjee based on a spoof of actress Priyanka Chopra’s get-up at the Met Gala, to apologise to the West Bengal chief minister.
The apex court granted bail to Sharma too. She had been arrested for sharing the meme on Twitter and other social media platforms.
Why apologise, explains bench
Justices Indira Banerjee and Sanjiv Khanna of the vacation bench said Sharma must apologise in writing once she is released from custody for posting the morphed picture of the ruler of Bengal.
Seeking an unconditional apology from Sharma, the bench gave a profound observation: Although freedom of speech is non-negotiable, “your freedom of speech ends when it infringes upon others’ rights”. Its logic was that Sharma, being a member of a political group, must be extra restrained.
This certainly begs the questions whether caricaturing — of which meme-making is a modern avatar — is prohibited in India. Also, should all politicians be debarred from holding stakes in the media, given that they should be “extra responsible” in political commentary?
Sharma had moved the Supreme Court challenging her arrest by West Bengal Police on 10 May under Section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and other provisions of the controversial and draconian Information Technology Act. The police had acted on a complaint of a local Trinamool leader Bibhas Hazra.
Section 500 of IPC
Punishment for defamation
Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc
Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,
(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,
shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with (a) fine.
BJP workers and other social media users have been protesting the West Bengal regime’s act of muzzling dissent since the day Sharma was arrested.
The court order has come as a rude shock to eminent citizens on social media, too. Here is academic Madhu Kishwar sharing her angst.
Supreme Court needs to apologise for its double, triple & multiple standards displayed time & again, not #PriyankaSharma Sharma. I support the #RightToMeme as part of FOE . @republic https://t.co/nPeCsGe2f0
— MadhuPurnima Kishwar (@madhukishwar) May 14, 2019
About an hour after delivering the order, the Supreme Court called back Sharma’s lawyer NK Kaul to tell him a part of the order stands reversed. The apex court has waived off the condition of apology. It issued an order of immediate release of Priyanka Sharma, but at the time of filing of this report, West Bengal Police had not released her.