A BJP Yuva Morcha leader was arrested on Friday and slapped with non-bailable charges for posting a photoshopped image of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Facebook. On Saturday, Priyanka Sharma, 25, was produced at the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Howrah which remanded her in judicial custody for 14 days.
Priyanka Sharma, whose Facebook profile describes her as Howrah district club cell convener of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), was arrested on Friday for allegedly posting a picture of actor Priyanka Chopra with her husband Nick Jonas at the red carpet of the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in New York, with Banerjee’s face superimposed on the actor’s. The image is no longer on Priyanka’s Facebook timeline.
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Sharma has been charged under Section 500 of the IPC (defamation), and Sections 66A (offensive messages) and the non-bailable 67A (punishment for publishing or transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act, etc., in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act. Police said they acted on the basis of a complaint by local Trinamool Congress leader Vibhas Hazra.
Battlelines drawn in Bengal
The arrest of the 25-year-old woman underlines how hard the battlelines are in West Bengal between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The action also strengthens the BJP’s case that non-Trinamool voters are being intimidated and threatened. This comes after violence has marked all five phases of polls in the state.
“She was produced at a court in Howrah which has remanded her in police custody for 14 days. That is all I can say,” said a senior police officer of Howrah Police.
But it may be a while before the accused can seek bail since courts in Howrah are on strike till May 14. Legal experts say it will be hard for police to prove obscenity or the meme’s “sexually explicit” nature. Besides, Section 66A, the other provision that Sharma has been charged with, was struck down by the Supreme Court in March 2015.
Sharma, who joined the BJP six months ago, runs a shop near her home in Dasnagar in Howrah, where she lives with her mother and brother.
“Many people posted the same meme on social media. She was just one of them. Police said she edited it. How is that possible? Our chief minister speaks of democracy and you get arrested and jailed for posing a meme,” said Rajiv, Priyanka’s brother who said he works as a freelance model.
Senior Trinamool leader and state minister Arup Roy told The Sunday Express, “There was a complaint at the Cyber Crime department against the post. The police have done the right thing by taking action as it is a criminal offence. The post was in bad taste. The West Bengal Chief Minister is a woman and any post like this is not acceptable. We condemn such incidents, especially if done during elections.”
BYJM Howrah district president Om Prakash Singh said Sharma joined the party after interacting with him on Facebook. “She joined the party six months ago and has been an active worker and a booth agent. She is our face in Dasnagar area, where earlier people did not dare to join us. Many of us shared the meme. I do not know why she is being targeted.”
Condemning the arrest, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma said in a tweet. “Appalled at an Emergency-like situation in WB. Freedom of expression is severely curbed. Priyanka Sharma, executive member of @bjym4howrah, has been sent to 14-day police custody for posting a Met Gala-themed meme . Please release her.”
The Met Gala, officially the Costume Institute Gala, is an annual fundraising gala and marks the opening of the annual fashion exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Actor Priyanka Chopra had attended the recent Gala and taken the internet by storm with her Dior gown with Chopard jewels.
In April 2012, Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor at Jadavpur University, was arrested for circulating an email with a caricature of Banerjee.