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Editorial

TOI EDIT-Allergic To Dissent Sharing a funny meme mustn’t land one in jail.SC must take Bengal government to task

May 15, 2019 05:59 AM

COURTESY TOI MAY 15

Allergic To Dissent
Sharing a funny meme mustn’t land one in jail.SC must take Bengal government to task
Supreme Court’s direction to immediately free BJYM leader Priyanka Sharma is welcome. But its insistence that she tender an apology upon release can set an unhealthy precedent. Anyone unlucky to give offence to vengeful political and police functionaries can meet Sharma’s fate and that is an alarming prospect. She had circulated a meme that morphed Mamata’s face on the widely discussed photo of Priyanka Chopra Jonas in a quirky avatar at the Met Gala. SC must let Kolkata police and Bengal government know in no uncertain terms that Sharma’s arrest and incarceration was unlawful.

An apology from Sharma, on the other hand, would have the effect of giving the overbearing state a moral victory despite SC emphasising that the “order shall not operate as a precedent”. Such attempts at caricature and satire that produce internet memes are now commonplace in India – drawing as they do upon the creative and political instincts of thousands of young people. In fact, many people relate to politics today through the propagation of digital text and images. Merely because a meme or a work of art or literature causes offence to the beholder, it cannot be criminalised. Conversely, asking the “offender” to apologise prepares the ground for wantonly criminalising free speech.


For a dysfunctional police force subject to the writ of local politicians this is an invitation to play havoc with civil liberties. Take the offences in Sharma’s FIR, which latest reports indicate police want closed, an admission that no case exists. She has been booked under Section 66A Information Technology Act, struck down in 2015 by SC for its “chilling effect on free speech”. Another charge is criminal defamation, but the irony is that a local TMC worker and not Mamata, who was purportedly defamed, is the complainant. Even Section 67A of IT Act (transmitting sexually explicit acts), an unbailable offence, doesn’t hold in this meme’s case.

Judiciary is the last resort for safeguard of rights but a court sent Sharma to 14 days judicial custody, all making for a classic Kafkaesque situation. And yet, in the digital era, the very attempt at suppressing dissent can end up amplifying it. The meme that would have joined the steady stream of bits and bytes flowing into the digital junkyard after catching a few dozen eyeballs was catapulted to a national audience after TMC’s crackdown on Sharma. We may disagree but let’s keep talking – that’s how a vibrant democracy works

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