Freedom of Speech Curtailed
   20-May-2019
The case against BJP youth leader Priyanka Sharma has reignited the debate on freedom of expression in West Bengal since the Trinamool government assumed power
Niladri Roy
 
The threat to Opposition forces within West Bengal keeps surfacing through attacks on opposition leaders. On May 13, Union Minister Babul Supriyo alleged that TMC goons pelted stones at his security personnel's vehicles near West Bengal's Basirhat. The rage and anarchy that earlier seemed sporadic now seem far more systemic in West Bengal, and Priyanka Sharma is a manifestation of that. A volunteer of the ruling party in a state governed by its fierce opponent has emerged as a victim of freedom of speech. Priyanka Sharma has gone from being just another BJP youth volunteer to a national symbol of the oppression of the right to free speech. The girl happens to be a political worker and she was just one of the thousands who shared a meme of Mamata Banerjee’s face morphed on Priyanka Chopra’s Mad-hatter Met Gala look. Priyanka, was also a key participant in the protest against Mamata Banerjee’s decision to bar Durga idol immersions on Muharram in 2017. Priyanka's Facebook profile is that of an ordinary booth level worker. There are selfies, pictures from BJP rallies and political camps where she seems to be distributing NaMo Again caps and T-shirts. Even the BJP promotional messages she has shared on Facebook are generic, with pictures of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah and local slogans in Bangla. Priyanka has shown courage to take a stand against a Chief Minister’s autocratic ways by constantly making her support for the saffron party public.
 
 
Priyanka Shama (left) was booked for sharing Mamata's meme 
 
Aside from the Lok Sabha elections reaching the last and most heated phase, the other situation that went into making Priyanka an instant hero was that lawyers in Kolkata are on strike. On April 24, clashes broke out in Howrah between the police and lawyers, and ever since, the local lawyers have been on strike against the alleged brutality of the state police. Around 15,000 lawyers across 85 courts in West Bengal are on strike. In Mamata Banerjee's Bengal, courage and not merit seems to be making heroes out of anonymous people who resist her ways.
 
Priyanka was unfairly subjected to imprisonment for doing what nearly everybody does at some point or the other: share a meme on social media. But the scale at which the incident has been discussed also presents itself as an opportunity for her to turn into a voice of resistance in Bengal politics.
 
What makes this whole situation so worrisome is not just that an apology is being demanded by the Supreme Court here without any such request coming from the supposedly offended party, but that the court has allowed itself to conflate legal issues with non-legal issues.
 
It ignores basic dicta on freedom of speech, and how only reasonable restrictions on this can be permitted. It ignores the fundamental rule of judicial decision-making, that a judicial order must be justifiable on form and substance. And it creates an entirely new jurisprudence on treating such cases differently from precedent just because the judges want to do so. This is not exactly an approach which will inspire much confidence in the general population, that their fundamental rights are going to be protected.
 
The case against BJP youth leader Priyanka Sharma has reignited the debate on freedom of expression in West Bengal since the Trinamool government assumed power. Sharma’s case has also brought to the fore the 2012 case lodged against Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor of Jadavpur University.
(The writer is a political thinker, enterpreneur and former financial anyalyst at HSBC, Kolkata)