NEW DELHI : The Supreme Court on Tuesday granted bail to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth wing worker from West Bengal, Priyanka Sharma, who was arrested for posting a morphed picture of chief minister Mamata Banerjee on social media but asked her to tender an unconditional written apology.

Sharma was arrested on 10 May for sharing the morphed photograph in which Banerjee’s face was superimposed on an image of actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas during her appearance at the Met Gala event.

A police complaint filed by Trinamool Congress worker Bivas Chandra Hazra alleged that the meme was against community guidelines and Kolkata’s culture. It represented violence and was an insult to the chief minister of West Bengal, Hazra alleged.

However, Sharma’s counsel Neeraj Kishan Kaul said that “Such an action against a 25-year-old girl will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech." Kaul said the meme was already viral and she had not made it but just ‘shared’ it like many others. He also submitted that she had deleted the shared post before she was arrested.

“There have been so many caricatures and cartoons of BJP leaders but no such thing has happened before. Why is she compelled to apologize now? So, tomorrow if anybody shares a meme, will he be arrested and will he be forced to apologize to get bail?" asked Kaul. He also added that as an officer of the court he is deeply concerned with the order of the court for he completely supports freedom of speech and expression.

The vacation bench of the apex court, comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and Sanjeev Khanna, said a person’s freedom ends when it infringes the rights of others. Freedom of speech is non-negotiable but should not be allowed to violate somebody else’s rights, said Banerjee.

The court also considered the fact that Sharma was part of a political party. Had it been a regular citizen, the situation and directions could have been mellowed and different, it said.

The bench made amendments to its bail order and clarified that this decision of the court “shall not operate as a precedent." The court observed that because the person who shared the morphed picture belongs to a political party the insinuation of posting such a picture is different from that of a common person. Also the meme is of the leader of a contesting political party and hence the court had given such an order. Had it been a common citizen the situation and directions would have been different.

The case will be next heard in July on the question of laws concerning the freedom of speech and expression. A notice has been issued to the state of West Bengal.

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