Supreme Court erred badly in insisting that Priyanka Sharma apologize for re-posting a meme; should have censured WB cops
The West Bengal police clearly erred in arresting BJP youth wing functionary Priyanka Sharma for sharing a morphed picture of the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee – her face was morphed on to actor Priyanka Chopra’s body at a Met Gala function recently – on social media since, by no stretch of the imagination, could this be construed a crime or an attack on the chief minister’s rights or freedom. The morphed picture wasn’t particularly funny – but Sharma wasn’t arrested for her poor sense of humour – but the point is that cartoonists make fun of politicians for a living every day, as do stand-up comedians, so if offence is going to be taken so easily, a lot more people will be jailed every day. Given this, when the case went to the Supreme Court, it was expected it would take less than a minute to grant Sharma bail – that is a right everyone enjoys in most cases – and to censure the West Bengal police for the uncalled for arrest. Instead, the vacation bench judges asked Sharma to apologize to the chief minister at the time of her release – initially, it appeared the apology was a pre-condition for the bail, but if it has to be given after the release, it really amounts to the same thing.
Indeed, given how most Indian politicians take offence at such humour – even parties that now preach the virtue of tolerance and promise to revoke the anti-sedition law have jailed cartoonists in the past – it was hoped the Supreme Court would put an end to this by keeping the bigger picture in mind. Its insistence on an apology if the BJP youth activist is to be released, however, shows that is not. Interestingly, as The Indian Express cartoonist EP Unny points in an article today, politicians seem to have become thinner skinned over the years. While giving the example of various cartoons that have attracted the ire of political parties in the recent past, he recalls Abu Abraham’s cartoon on President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad signing an ordinance while in the bathtub and angrily telling his attendant “if there are any more ordinances, just ask them to wait”; amazingly, this appeared at the peak of the Emergency when civil liberties were mostly given the go by. In response to one cartoon that lampooned the DMK a few years ago, Unny recalls the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court as having said, in 2018, “to apply the yardsticks of defamation in the case of cartoons, the threshold must be very high … law envisages a reasonable person and not a touch and hypersensitive individual”. Pity even the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to have taken this advice.
The Supreme Court is at pains to point out that, had the reposting not been done by a political person, it may have acted differently, which is why its order talks of “the special circumstances of the case”. But this is precisely the problem, why should the rules of satire apply differently? Will actor Urmila Matondkar be asked to give an apology by the Supreme Court for her tweet making fun of prime minister Modi’s statement that, while the Air Force was in favour of pushing back the Balakot strikes because of bad weather, Modi felt the cloudy weather would reduce the ability of Pakistan’s radars to spot India’s planes; along with a picture of her with her dog, the tweet says “thank God for the clear sky and no clouds so that my pet Romeo’s ears can get the clear RADAR signals”, and this is followed by a smiley! It is not clear which is worse, the Supreme Court taking such a hard line on humour or taking out so much time for such unimportant cases – the case is to be heard again – while there are crores of pending cases.