It is a matter of regret that the Supreme Court merely granted bail to, and did not strike down the arrest of, the woman held by West Bengal police for a meme that tastelessly foisted Priyanka Chopra’s hairdo at a recent New York fashion do on to the face of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
The court asked the woman to apologise to Banerjee as well. This goes against the grain of the right to ridicule, which is part and parcel of a free press and democratic debate and dissent. Those in public life must accept that cartoonists will caricature them, that commentators will skewer their policies, and that such criticism is the obverse of the public acclaim and affection they also receive.
Congress’ old election symbol of a cow standing with its calf had been used by several cartoonists to criticise Indira Gandhi’s indulgence of her son Sanjay’s excesses by replacing the cow’s head with Indira’s and the calf ’s with Sanjay’s.
This led to neither prime ministerial apoplexy nor arrests of the cartoonists. The world over, cartoonists and caricaturists make creative use of their own imagination, features of political leaders and the universe of possible allusions ranging from history, literature, the animal world and pop culture to make a point. Those who produce tasteless work themselves stand condemned.
Those who put their craft to good use add to the public discourse. Exercise of the right to ridicule must be recognised as an integral part of the fundamental right to free expression. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court would, on its own, redress the wrong done to democratic rights by its conduct in the present case. As it stands, the court’s order is a frontal attack on cartooning and criticism of public individuals. That, of course, cannot be its intent.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Economic Times.
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