It is good that the Supreme Court (SC) directed that Priyanka Sharma be immediately released.
There are two developments that have greatly upset me this last week. First, is the incarceration of BJP worker, Priyanka Sharma, for a meme she shared on social media satirising Mamata Banerjee. The second is the statement made by Pragya Thakur Singh, the terror accused who is the BJP's candidate from Bhopal. In a statement that caused widespread outrage she said: “Nathuram Godse was a deshbhakt (patriot), he is and will remain a deshbhakt. Those calling him a terrorist should instead look at themselves. They will be given a befitting reply in this election.”
Why is the West Bengal government so sensitive about a meme about its chief minister, Mamata Banerjee? All that the young BJP activist, Priyanka, did was to superimpose the face of the CM on that of actress Priyanka Chopra's Met Gala photograph. For this “grave” offence she was arrested and sent to 14 days judicial custody on the charge of violating Sections 66A and 67A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, and for defamation under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
Frankly, this kind of overreaction is ridiculous. People in public life, who have opted to be in the public gaze, cannot have such a thin skin to criticism — if this is how a meme is to be viewed. Since our Independence we have had a glorious gallery of cartoonists — K. Shankar Pillai, R.K. Laxman, Abu Abraham, O.V. Vijayan, Sudhir Tailang, and even Bal Thackeray — who have not hesitated to lampoon those in power. In fact, many of those at the receiving end of their powerfully vitriolic humour, have welcomed the “attacks”. Pandit Nehru, who was the butt of many of Shankar's cartoons, famously told him to continue unabashed. Atal Bihari Vajpayee laughed at cartoons satirising him, and even framed the one made by young Sudhir Tailang, a cartoonist of great promise who alas left us too early.
It is good that the Supreme Court (SC) directed that Priyanka Sharma be immediately released. However, it is difficult to understand why the honourable SC qualified its order by asking Priyanka to give a written apology “for putting up/sharing the pictures complained of on her Facebook account”. In the world’s largest democracy does a person have to apologise for making a little fun about people on the pedestal of power? Even if we concede that the meme was in “bad taste”, earlier judicial pronouncements are quite clear that the right to free speech cannot be curtailed by such subjective appraisals. Citing sedition, defamation and violations of the IT Act as a means of suppressing legitimate artistic or political freedom is a subversion of the fundamentals of democratic functioning. The West Bengal government has not covered itself in glory by reacting in this childish manner.
Pragya Singh Thakur’s outrageous statement valorising Godse is deeply disturbing for several reasons. This is not the first time she has shot herself in the mouth. On an earlier occasion, she said with great pride that she was among the first to bring the Babri mosque down. This public admission of taking the law into her own hands and the distorted and communal passion behind the articulation of such an admission was tantamount to criminal conduct. Her statement praising Godse only confirms one's worst suspicions about the degree to which her mind is twisted and perverted. The fact that she was made a candidate from the prestigious Bhopal seat when she was a terror accused in the eyes of the National Investigating Agency (NIA) was bad enough. That the BJP justified its choice, and defended her, was worse.
The BJP has publicly condemned her statement on Godse, and asked her to apologise, which she has done. But there is another very worrisome aspect to this sordid affair. To what extent does Pragya reflect views within the BJP, and the RSS? This question must be asked because at least three other BJP leaders, including a minister in the Union cabinet, Anant Kumar Hegde, made statements or tweeted in support of what she had said about Godse. (Hegde later hastily deleted his tweet and gave an unconvincing excuse about how his account had been hacked). Earlier, in 2015, Sakshi Maharaj had already created a furore when, within the premises of Parliament, he had said that a memorial to Godse should be built. Is Pragya alone in thinking that Godse — who cold bloodedly murdered the greatest icon of peace and non-violence, and the father of our nation — is a patriot? Or, is she merely the outspoken voice of a strong subterranean sentiment within the Sangh Parivar supportive of Godse’s “patriotic” credentials?
And, what would the BJP say if Pragya — hypothetically — was to win the election in Bhopal? She has herself said that those who think that Godse was a terrorist would be “given a befitting reply in this election”. Is one to understand, therefore, that a win in the election would be, from her point of view, a validation of her views that Godse was a patriot? The question also arises as to how other voices within the BJP in her support would view her electoral success were it to happen. Would they too view the outcome as an endorsement of what she said? And, would there then be many more voices glorifying Godse, and Pragya Thakur, for having the courage to say what many actually believe within the BJP?
The entire nation would like to believe that the BJP’s condemnation of Thakur’s statement is a reflection of its genuine sense of outrage at such a comment, and the party will act against her, and all those who support what she said. Notices have been issued to them by the party.
In the great festival of democracy, which is our elections, there are fault lines which need to be uncovered and examined, not surreptitiously glossed over. The sending of Priyanka Sharma to jail for a harmless caricature of Mamata Banerjee is one such distortion. The statement by Pragya Singh Thakur is another, much bigger, cause of worry.