By Suchitra Mohanty
NEWDELHI (Reuters) – India’s top court on Tuesday granted bail to a ruling party activist who was arrested last week for sharing a meme of opposition leader Mamata Banerjee, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challengers in the general election.
Priyanka Sharma’s arrest for sharing a meme on Facebook that superimposed Banerjee’s head on a picture of actress Priyanka Chopra sporting frizzy hair at the Met Gala in New York was criticised as a curb on free speech.
Banerjee, chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal, heads the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and is a potential candidate for prime minister.
The state is key to Modi’s chances for a second term in office, especially as the BJP is expected to lose many seats in the country’s north.
Sharma, who had been remanded in custody, is a member of the youth wing of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Sharma is directed to be released immediately, without any condition,” Supreme Court judge Indira Banerjee said in a ruling after withdrawing an initial order that Sharma apologise to the Bengal leader.
AITC workers had called the meme an insult to the people of West Bengal, while Sharma’s family said her arrest was politically motivated.
“An apology would have meant death knell for freedom of expression and would have legitimised brute use of state force to silence political adversaries,” Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s information and technology group, said on Twitter.
Political differences between the two parties have often led to tensions and violence in the state. Both parties have accused each other of killings, beatings, vandalism and making false allegations to the police.
India’s seven-phase general election, which began on April 11, ends on May 19 and results will be out on May 23.
(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Writing by Krishna N. Das; editing by Darren Schuettler)