New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday imposed a penalty of Rs 20 lakh on the West Bengal government for a shadow ban on political satire ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’, and said “free speech can’t be silenced for the fear of the mob”.
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.”
The movie ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’ had to be pulled out of several theatres after the Kolkata Joint Commissioner of Police had written to them, citing political law and order problem.
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 while reading out the operative part of the verdict.
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) popular opinions 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,” said the judge.
The Court asserted that the State doesn’t entrust freedom to the people but it is a right guaranteed to them under the Constitution. “You can’t put curbs on fundamental human freedom. Organised interests can’t threaten the freedom of theatre owners, artists,” It said.
“Speech can’t be silenced due to fear of the mob. Art and literature will become victims of intolerance if the State doesn’t act and protect this right of the artists,” said the bench. It pointed out that there is a duty cast upon the state governments to protect the citizens’ right of free speech and expression.
For loss of the producer of ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’ and the theatre owners in not being able to screen the movie, the court said that the West Bengal government should be directed to pay a compensation of Rs 20 lakh. An additional Rs 1lakh was imposed on the state as the cost of the litigation. The court was passing order on a writ petition filed by Indibily Creative Pvt Ltd, challenging the validity of police officers’ letter to stop screening of the Bangla satire.
The court had earlier taken exception to the letter seeking private screening of the movie before the police authorities. Subsequently, a counsel for the West Bengal government had told the bench that the letter sent by the joint commissioner of police to the producer of the film on February 11, 2019 was withdrawn. The court had then taken exception to the letter which said that the “film may create political law and order issues”.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, appearing for the film producer, had argued that a “worrying” trend has been seen where a film producer was directly told by the police authorities to stop screening a movie without resorting to legal provisions.