The Supreme Court released Priyanka Sharma on bail but didn’t go far enough to free her unconditionally. Free speech is too important in a democracy, and a principle worth preserving at any cost, regardless of which state is acting against critics in this way. The BJP activist’s offence was to create a meme on West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee that was far from humorous, in fact distasteful. However, there is a long tradition of those in public life being lampooned by critics, cartoonists and caricaturists. India’s early Prime Ministers had borne the brunt of the crackling humour of newspaper cartoons, but did nothing to rein them in, leave alone arrest them. What has been happening of late is that those who lampoon people in power have been thrown into jail under various laws, including the Information Technology Act.
The Supreme Court has also imposed a condition that an apology be rendered. This isn’t altogether a bad thing, to have to say sorry for tasteless portrayal, as in superimposing the CM’s face on that of an actress who was at the New York Met Gala displaying what is called “camp” fashion, which is to “present an aesthetic sensibility that is plain to see but hard to explain”. And this isn’t the only instance of such intolerance in protecting a political leader’s image. West Bengal had earlier acted against a professor for simply forwarding a cartoon. The intolerance of dissent and criticism will end only when all top leaders recognise that the world has changed and that every citizen can post his/her messages on the all-pervasive social media to make a point. That is simply no reason to stifle free speech.