New Delhi: Holding that there was a clear abuse of public power, the Supreme Court on Thursday imposed a Rs 20-lakh fine on the West Bengal government for not allowing the screening of the satirical film Bhobishyoter Bhoot and castigated the state police, saying its action posed a grave danger to personal liberty and free speech and expression.
In scathing remarks, the top court said that by pulling down the film from the theatres, the West Bengal police had overreached their statutory powers by becoming “instruments in a concerted attempt to silence speech, suborn views critical of prevailing cultures and threaten law-abiding citizens into submission”.
The top court also restrained the West Bengal government from using “extra-constitutional” means to stop the screening of the film and said that the state shall specifically ensure that the properties of the theatre owners are duly protected and viewers safety is looked after.
“We have no manner of doubt that this was a clear abuse of public power. The police are entrusted with enforcing the law. In the present case, the West Bengal police have overreached their statutory powers and have become instruments in a concerted attempt to silence speech, suborn views critical of prevailing cultures and threaten law-abiding citizens into submission,” a bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta said in its verdict on a plea by the filmmakers.
The apex court said the fine amount would be given to producers and cinema hall owners as compensation for violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression. It also awarded Rs 1 lakh as litigation costs to the producers. It said that the petitioners have suffered a violation of their fundamental right to free speech and expression and of their right to pursue a lawful business.
The apex court said that the state of West Bengal had informed it that it had not taken recourse to its statutory powers either under state or Union legislation.
“If that be so, there has to be some explanation forthcoming before the court why the film was simultaneously removed from the theatres, at one stroke, shortly after release. The apprehension of the petitioners that this was an action which followed on the letter dated February 11, 2019 of the Joint Commissioner of Police is not unfounded. The letter addressed by INOX to the producer specifically mentions that they were directed by the authorities to discontinue the screening in the ‘interest of the guests’,” it said.
The top court said that the approach of the authorities in the present case treats citizens as “subjects” denying them autonomy and self-determination, by vesting wide authority to decide the forms of expression that these “subjects” can access and be “trusted” with having exposure to.
“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.