Laugh, your honour, it’s just a joke. Last week, West Bengal Police arrested Priyanka Sharma, a BJP worker, for sharing a meme on the internet that photoshopped the face of chief minister Mamata Banerjee onto the body of a film actress. Such memes are common in today’s social media and simply represent the application of new technology to the old art of cartooning.
Sharma applied for bail. Instead of castigating Banerjee for her inability to stand ridicule, the court refused to strike down the arrest and asked Sharma to apologise to the chief minister. After an avalanche of criticism, the court waived the need for an apology. Yet it dented the court’s reputation for being a champion of media freedom that stopped politicians from misusing the law to silence critics.
The meme may have been in poor taste, but tasteless jokes and cartoons are not crimes. The right to free speech must surely include the right to ridicule others. The court correctly said that Sharma’s right to free speech did not extend to defamation, but how high should the bar be set? In 2013, MLAs of the DMK had the cartoonist Dinkar arrested for portraying them as monkeys. The high court released him remarking that “to apply the yardsticks of defamation in the case of cartoons, the threshold must be very high”. That is an excellent guideline in all cases against cartoons or memes.
Cartoonist EP Unny says, “When a cartoon is turned into a crime, democracy becomes a joke.” How very true.
India still has laws on sedition dating from British colonial times. Those laws, aimed to scuttle the Indian independence movement, are now being used to stop cartoonists and satirists from lampooning politicians.
During Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for sedition for a cartoon castigating Indian politicians for corruption. When police inspector C Bhosale was asked to justify this, he replied, “The cartoons by Trivedi depicted Parliament as a commode and showed the National Emblem with wolves instead of lions. The cartoons were obviously aimed at creating unrest in the society.” This pathetic, lame excuse caused an uproar that ultimately embarrassed the government sufficiently for the charges to be dropped. Yet the incident had a chilling effect on all cartoonists.
Indeed, the mere act of sharing a cartoon by email or Facebook can invite arrest. In a separate incident in 2012, Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University in Kolkata was assaulted by members of the ruling party for forwarding anti-Mamata Banerjee cartoons by email to about 65 people. He was arrested by the police, and released on bail only after being forced to sign a false statement that he was an active member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The state human rights commission was appalled and ordered the government to pay him compensation of Rs 50,000. The sum was not paid. So the matter went to the high court, which, three years later, asked the government to pay Rs 75,000 as compensation. Alas, this has not discouraged the arbitrary use of power by Mamata Banerjee.
In 2017, Tamil cartoonist G Bala was arrested after drawing a cartoon criticising government inaction in the face of loan sharks that had recently driven borrowers to suicide in Tamil Nadu. The district collector called the cartoon “derogatory, demeaning and malicious”. It portrayed the burning body of a baby watched silently by the chief minister and two local officials who were portrayed naked, covering their private parts with currency notes. What crime was Bala accused of ? Obscenity! Could there be a more ridiculous excuse?
Way back in 1975, Indira Gandhi issued ordinances imposing an Emergency on India. Censorship was immediately enforced. Yet Abu Abraham was able to publish a famous cartoon showing an irate President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his bathtub signing the ordinances and saying, “If there are any more Ordinances, just ask them to wait.” Cartoonists today seem to have less freedom to lampoon politicians than Abu had in the Emergency.
Anther old cartoon had a politician saying, “What? None of the promises I made before the last elections have been carried out? Just wait. I promise to look into the matter when I’m elected again.” That could seem a very relevant joke today in several states today. Yet one has to wonder if it might attract arrest.
Could the Supreme Court please declare that constitutional provisions for free speech necessarily include a Fundamental Right to Ridicule? Like other rights, this would not be absolute. But it would thwart arbitrary arrests by politicians that cannot stand being lampooned by a free media.