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.
“The Joint Commissioner was not unmindful of the fact that the film had been slated for release within a few days of his communication in theatres across the city of Kolkata and the state. If there was any doubt whatever over the entitlement of the producers to have the film exhibited, it was laid to rest when the producers immediately informed him of the film being CBFC certified,” it said.
The bench termed as insidious the step to unceremoniously pull down from theatres a film which is duly certified and slated for release.
“They are insidious because they are not backed by the authority of law. They pose grave dangers to free speech because the citizen is left in the lurch without being informed of the causes or the basis of the action. This has the immediate effect of silencing speech and the expression of opinion,” it said.
The apex court further said the ability to communicate ‘ideas’ is a legitimate area of human endeavour and is not controlled by the acceptability of the views to those to whom they are addressed.
“When the ability to portray art in any form is subject to extra-constitutional authority, there is a grave danger that fundamental human freedoms will be imperilled by a cloud of opacity and arbitrary state behaviour,” the court said.
The apex court was hearing a plea filed by Indibily Creative Pvt Ltd and others seeking a direction to the state government and its departments including the Home as also the Police Commissioner to refrain from causing any obstruction to the unhindered exhibition of the film.
The film was certified for public viewing by the Central Board of Film Certification on November 19, 2018. It has a U/A certification.
A communication was received by one of the producers of the movie from the Special Branch of West Bengal Police that the contents of the film may hurt public sentiments which may lead to political law and order issues.
The petition had said that that the film has been taken down from a majority of theatres, and out of 48 exhibitors, only two were presently displaying the film.
The film, directed by Anik Dutta, was released on February 15 and withdrawn a day later.
The story of the film revolves around a group of ghosts, including that of a politician, who assemble at a refugee camp and try to be relevant in contemporary times.