Tensions are running high this election season and some parties and politicians neither have the patience nor tolerance to laugh over jokes.
With social media fueling fires, it’s become quite a risk to post anything incriminating on social media sites. And now the argument on how far freedom of expression goes has become a trending topic and it is all because of a meme.
On 10th May, Priyanka Sharma (a BJP Yuva Morcha leader) was arrested by the West Bengal Police for posting a Mamta Banerjee meme. She was arrested under section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and other provisions of the IT Act on the complaint filed by local Trinamool Congress leader Vibhas Hazra.
Left- West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee Right-Priyanka Sharma
Today, the Supreme Court granted bail to the BJP worker but also stated that freedom of speech ends when it infringes upon another person’s rights.
The hearing was presided over by a vacation bench consisting of justices Sanjiv Khanna and Indira Banerjee. The justices stated that the BJP youth leader will apologise in writing upon her release from jail over the morphed image of the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The bench remarked that freedom of speech and expression is non-negotiable but interposed that,
"Your freedom of speech ends when it infringes upon others' rights. Someone's feelings have been hurt. There has to be an apology."
The bench also observed that because of Sharma’s connections with a political party, her posting such an image has different insinuations in comparison to when a common person shares it.
Priyanka Sharma participating in BJP events
The bench stated,
"She is a member of the political party. Elections are going on. At this stage, we are not on the aspect of criminal law. We are asking for an apology because it is election time."
Sharma was reportedly forced to move the SC due to there being a strike in local courts until 14th May and also because she had been remanded 14 days judicial custody by local Howrah court on 11th May.
The meme in question
A meme is "an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations."
The image in question was a morphed photo, where Banerjee's face was photo-shopped on to actor Priyanka Chopra’s picture from the MET Gala event, held in New York on 6th May 2019.
The original photo has Priyanka Chopra posing on the red carpet. The actor herself was trolled on the internet for her over the top fashion for the event and social media was then filled with countless memes. While the gala event’s theme was meant to be ‘Camp’ (over the top and extravagant), many were of the opinion that Chopra’s end look wasn’t the most flattering, but in contrast, others felt that her effort was commendable.
There has been hue and cry from BJP supporters and other social media users as they opine that this move from Mamta Banerjee is a testament to her being intolerant and dictatorial. While Sharma’s lawyer stated that this order will have a “chilling effect on the freedom of expression”. Ms Sharma’s lawyer, Neeraj Kishan Kaul argued that,
"if one is asked to apologise for memes, will citizens come and apologise for a caricature".
He also argued that Sharma had not created the image herself but had just shared it and her arrest was politically motivated.
BJP leaders have welcomed the decision from the Supreme Court. On 13th May, Union Minister Mahesh Sharma also hit out at the West Bengal government in regards to the arrest. He stated,
"such politics is neither good for the country nor the state."
This is not the first time that Banerjee’s side has been intolerant about caricatures of the Chief Minister. In 2012, Ambikesh Mahapatra, Jadavpur University’s chemistry professor was arrested for sharing an email that contained a caricature of Banerjee.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think this infringes the universal right of Freedom of Expression or does it cross the line when the election fever is running high?