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Free Speech Cannot Be Silenced By Fear Of Mob: SC Fines Mamata Government For Shadow Ban On Political Satire

The Supreme Court has passed an order on a writ petition filed by Indibily Creative Pvt Ltd, challenging the validity of police officers' letter to stop screening of a Bangla satire film. The Supreme Court bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta fined Bengal's Mamata Banerjee-led government Rs 20 lakh for a shadow ban on socio-political satire, 'BhobishyoterBhoot' that was withdrawn from the state's theatres a day after its release in February 16. Over this, the Court has imposed costs of Rs.1 lakh on West Bengal Government. The Court expressed serious concerns over "growing intolerance" in society against artistic freedom. Earlier, the Court had passed an interim order directing the West Bengal Government to ensure smooth screening of this film “BhobishyoterBhoot".

Motivated by a mission to support meaningful Bengali cinema, Anik Datta produced a film titled BhobishyoterBhoot. Their grievance, while invoking the jurisdiction of this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution is that the State of West Bengal, its Department of Home and the Kolkata Police have caused an “utterly unlawful obstruction of the public exhibition of their Bengali feature film”. The producer of the film, alleged that the State of West Bengal is misusing police power and acting as a ‘super-censor’ sitting atop the CBFC and is violating the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14,19(1)(a), 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Indian Constitution through the Kolkata Police which is under the Department of Home. The producer asserted that such obstruction to the exhibition of the movie violated its rights, as it had duly obtained a UA certificate for the movie from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

The producer of the film received a letter from the State Intelligence Unit calling upon him to arrange a prior screening of the film for senior officials of the intelligence unit of Kolkata police by 12 February 2019. The letter stated that inputs were received that the contents of the film may hurt public sentiments which may lead to political law and order issues. The producer of the film responded on 12 February 2019, stating that these “inputs” had already been addressed by the CBFC before it issued a clearance for the release of the film and clarified that the decisions of this Court hold that it is not open to any other authority or public office to interfere in such matters as this would violate the rule of law. The producer informed Shri DilipBandopadhyay, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Intelligence), Special Branch, Kolkata that his office does not have the jurisdiction to seek ‘advance’ private screening prior to the release for a few senior officials on a priority basis as sought. No further communication was received from the Kolkata police.

The producer proceeded with the release of the film on 15 February 2019. According to the producer, the film was running to packed houses by Saturday, 16 February 2019. The grievance is that within a day of its release in Kolkata and a few districts of West Bengal an overwhelming majority of the exhibitors abruptly took the film off their screens on 16 February 2019 without a communication from the producers. Tickets were being refunded to the viewers without any reason being offered by the exhibitors. The producer averred that there was not even a single reported incident predicating concerns of law and order. When the director of the film visited the exhibitor at Inox South City to inquire why tickets were being refunded to viewers, the exhibitor cited unnamed “higher authorities” who they said had instructed them to take the film off the screens. Several exhibitors claimed that Station House Officers from the local police station had called or visited them and informed them in no uncertain terms to cease screening the film with immediate effect, failing which they would have to face the risk of damage to their cinema halls.

A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud defined such an act as "insidious" and maintained that the police can't be the self-appointed guardian of the moral authority. They can't suppress dissent and freedom to speech and expression. Arbitrary exercise of powers by the State can't be permitted. This case exposes the dangers of scuttling freedom to speech and expression, said Justice Chandrachud. Expressing serious concerns over the growing intolerance against artistic freedom, the court said “don’t watch a film, don't turn the pages of the book, don't hear what's not music to the ears, but you cannot curb freedom of the others.”

A film, duly certified, doesn't need approval of any other extra-judicial authority for its screening, said the bench, also comprising Justice Hemant Gupta. There is growing intolerance in the society but opinions of few higher authorities can't decide what is to be shown as artistic expressions and what not. Art is as much for mainstream as it is for the margins. The Court asserted that the State doesn't entrust freedom to the people but it is a right guaranteed to them under the Constitution. One can't put curbs on fundamental human freedom.  Speech cannot be silenced for the fear of the mob. Art and literature will become victims of intolerance if the state does not act and protect the rights of the artists.

For loss of the producer of ‘BhobishyoterBhoot’ and the theatre owners in not being able to screen the movie, the court directed West Bengal Government should pay a compensation of Rs. 20 lakh. An additional Rs. 1lakh was imposed on the State as the cost of the litigation.

Divya Patwal

VOICE