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‘Freedom is not a supplicant to power’, SC fines West Bengal govt for stopping screening of Bhobishyoter Bhoot

‘Freedom is not a supplicant to power’, SC fines West Bengal govt for stopping screening of Bhobishyoter Bhoot

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court today directed the West Bengal government to pay a fine of Rs 20 lakh for attempting to obstruct the screening of the film Bhobishyoter Bhoot.

The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta has directed for the fine to be disbursed to the producers of the film and the theatre owners for violating their right to freedom of speech and expression. The Court has further imposed costs of Rs 1 lakh on the state, to be paid to the petitioners.

The Court, stating that the duty of the state is to ensure that “speech is not silenced by the mob”, directed  the government to ensure that the theatres screening the film are protected.

“The state is duty bound to ensure the prevalence of conditions in which of those freedoms can be exercised. The instruments of the state must be utilized to effectuate the exercise of freedom. When organized interests threaten the properties of theatre owners or the viewing audience with reprisals, it is the plain duty of the state to ensure that speech is not silenced by the fear of the mob.”

Facts of the Case

The makers of the film had contended that the State of West Bengal was “acting like a super-censor sitting atop the CBFC” and misusing police power to violate their rights guaranteed under the Articles 14, 19(1)(a), 19(1)(g), and 21.

The Court noted that the film was released in theatres in Kolkata as well as other cities in the state on February 15. Before the release, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Intelligence) in the Special Branch sent letter to the producers seeking a private screening for a few senior officials. There was apprehension that the film “may hurt public sentiment” and “may lead to law and order issues”.

The film was pulled down from all theatres, while only two exhibitors out of forty-eight continued to exhibit the film. The grievance before the Court was that the state and its agencies had resorted to extra-constitutional means to annul the right to freedom of expression of the producers, exhibitors, and the viewers.

The Verdict

The judgment states that the commitment to free speech involves its protection even when the speech involves things we do not want to hear. Justice DY Chandrachud quotes a declaration on the protection of free speech attributed to Voltaire and further goes on to say,

“Protection of the freedom of speech is founded on the belief that speech is worth defending even when certain individuals may not agree with or even despise what is being spoken. This principle is at the heart of democracy, a basic human right, and its protection is a mark of a civilized and tolerant society.”

The Court also pointed out that the statutory authority on film certification, the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), had already certified the film, and any doubts the Joint CP had ought to have been put to rest upon being informed of the film certification. The police cannot and ought not be “allies in suppression of dissent”, the judgment states.

“The police are not in a free society the self-appointed guardians of public morality. The uniformed authority of their force is subject to the rule of law. They cannot arrogate to themselves the authority to be willing allies in the suppression of dissent and obstruction of speech and expression.”

With respect to police power in the case, the Court further remarks that an exercise of authority pursuant to statutory provisions is also subject to “judicial oversight under a regime of constitutional remedies”. This power to exercise statutory authority cannot be an uncontrolled one in a discourse based on the rule of law, the judgment states.

Growing Intolerance

Justice Chandrachud, in this judgment, also touches upon the aspect of growing intolerance and the attempt made to curb dissent flowing from and portrayed in print and celluloid media.

“Organised groups and interests pose a serious danger to the existence of the right to free speech and expression.”

Speaking specifically on the right to freedom of expression, particularly for artists of all kinds, the judgment says that this freedom would be deemed illusory if it were to be subjected to popular notions of what is acceptable.

“The true purpose of art, as manifest in its myriad forms, is to question and provoke. Art in an elemental sense reflects a human urge to question the assumptions on which societal values may be founded. In questioning prevailing social values and popular cultures, every art form seeks to espouse a vision. Underlying the vision of the artist is a desire to find a new meaning for existence The artist, in an effort to do so, is entitled to the fullest liberty and freedom to critique and criticize.”

The Court observed that in this case, an example was sought to be made out of the makers of this film and an attempt was made to silence criticism and critique. The Court asserted that in this case there has been an unconstitutional attempt at invading the fundamental rights of the makers and viewers of the film and this cannot be “countenanced in a free society”. The judgment states,

“Freedom is not a supplicant to power.”

Bhobishyoter Bhoot is a social and political satire about ghosts who wish to make themselves relevant in the future by rescuing the marginalized and the obsolete.

The film was initially released in Kolkata and certain districts of West Bengal on February 15. However, by the evening of February 16, without any communication from the exhibitors, the producers received information that the film was abruptly and suddenly taken off a majority of cinema halls and viewers were being refunded their tickets.

Last month, the Supreme Court had come down upon the West Bengal government for obstructing the screening of the film and had passed interim orders directing the State to ensure that no obstruction is caused to the screening of the flim.

Read the Judgment:


Image Courtesy: YouTube.