Apology for meme: SC has erred

BJP activist Priyanka Sharma, who was arrested for allegedly posting a morphed image of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on social media, talks to the media after being granted bail, in Kolkata. PTI

The Supreme Court acted rightly and justly by granting bail to BJP Yuva Morcha leader in West Bengal Priyanka Sharma, whom the Kolkata police had arrested last Saturday, but it was wrong to direct her to tender an apology. Her arrest was an act of intolerance and a denial of her right to free speech because the alleged offence was that she had shared online a meme showing a morphed face of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The morphing was done on a photo of actor Priyanka Chopra, and there was nothing offensive, defamatory or illegal about it. But Sharma was arrested and was sent to judicial remand for 14 days. The Trinamool Congress government has been known in the past for its intolerance of criticism and even humour. A university professor was arrested in 2012 for forwarding a cartoon on the chief minister. There have been other cases also of action against critics, humourists and others. 

The Supreme Court, which should have protected the rights of Sharma and indicted the government and the police for their unlawful action, told her to tender an apology. It had first told her to tender an immediate apology but later amended the order and directed that she tender the apology upon release. This was a strange order. An apology would show that there was an offence. What was there for her to apologise for? Why was the nature of apology changed? The court has indicated that further investigation may be needed in the matter. If a final view of the matter is yet be taken, why was she asked to tender an apology? 

The court’s handling of the case would encourage the government to claim that there was substance in the charges against her, and that the court may only have taken a compassionate view of it. The Supreme Court has always stood for freedom of expression, but it has issued an order which will embolden governments and other authorities to take heavy-handed action against critics. The court has said that its order should not be taken as a precedent. This is also difficult to explain. Critics, humourists and cartoonists may be hauled up for their work and they may be made to apologise. Those who re-post the cartoons or satirical or critical work may also face action. Priyanka Sharma was only re-posting a meme. It should be noted that the government, citing technical grounds, delayed her release from jail even after the court’s order and the court had to make it clear that her arrest was arbitrary. It should have taken an unambiguous and clear position in support of Sharma’s rights in the first place.  

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