Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Is This A Laughing Matter?

Even as there was furore over MP Kalyan Banerjee’s mimicry of Vice-president Jagdeep Dhankhar, he said it was his fundamental right to do so. Can mimicking a target be a potential basis for legal action?

By Dr Swati Jindal Garg

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet, said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And one imitation that has taken the political arena by storm is the mimicry done recently by Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Kalyan Banerjee of Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar on the premises of Parliament, which was filmed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Banerjee justified his act saying: “Mimicry is a right, an expression, it is a fundamental right.” Banerjee was suspended from the Lok Sabha along with others; a total of 146 MLAs were suspended from both Houses in one go.

Mimicry is copying another’s mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, buying habits, business practices or originality of thinking. While such emulation may stem from sincere admiration, the imitator could also be harbouring feelings of envy. Then there are those who imitate as a form of mockery. Whether Banerjee’s intention was to emulate Dhankhar or to mock him is a matter of debate. 

This was not the first time a row erupted over a mimicry attempt. Actor Anupam Kher too unwittingly created a political controversy when he was quoted in the media as saying he found it tough to “mimic” former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s mannerisms. Although Kher didn’t use that word, multiple online publications paraphrased the actor as saying he had spent months learning to “mimic” Singh.

For most people, the word mimic carries with it the negative connotation of ridicule and mockery. When one mimics a person, one exaggerates not only his speech impediments, but also his tics, quirks and mannerisms. In short, every effort is made to make a fool of that person and ridicule him. And if you are mimicking someone in public, you also open yourself up to allegations of defamation.

Most dictionaries qualify the word “mimic” as derogatory in nature when applied to copying an individual’s persona. To some extent, the word “aping” has a certain level of admiration attached to it, but the word “mimic” does not.

Coming back to Banerjee, he insisted that he would repeat the act a thousand times as it was his fundamental right. “Mimicry is an art form. It is my fundamental right to express my views. The right to dissent and protest is also a fundamental right. You can put me in jail for this but I will not step back,” said Banerjee, who is also a senior lawyer.

Banerjee, in fact, went as far as saying, without naming Dhankhar, that “children are used to complaining like this. But he should know that he ignited the fire. Now if that fire burns down Lanka, that is not our fault”. He added: “I did the mimicry, but later I came to know that it became a big deal. But the first act of mimicry I saw in the Lok Sabha was by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When he did it, we laughed it off. We took the matter sportingly. They are crying hoarse over mimicry.” 

Accusing Dhankhar of being engrossed in himself despite being in a constitutional post, Banerjee advised him to look at the country instead of “throttling the Opposition to please the ruling dispensation at the centre”. “How much will you bend? How much do you want to please Narendra Modi and the BJP?” Banerjee asked Dhankhar. The vice-president in retaliation termed the act “shameful, ridiculous and unacceptable”.

As per law, there are grounds for libel if one is to publish an untruth about another, which will do harm to that person or his reputation by tending to bring him the ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation. This interpretation makes “mimicking” a potential basis for legal action. Libel also becomes real if the projection is a lie, if it damages a person’s reputation and is published through any mode. 

Being a senior advocate, Banerjee is not unaware of the law of the land. Even in 2015, senior BJP leader Siddharth Nath Singh had sent Kalyan a legal notice over allegedly defamatory and libelous statements not just against him, but against his family members. Banerjee has had run-ins with Dhankhar earlier also when the latter was West Bengal governor and had sanctioned the prosecution of TMC ministers based on a request by the CBI. Banerjee had then said: “He is a bloodsucker. He is trying to suck the blood of the Trinamool Congress.” 

If we take cognisance of an accusation that the mimicry was done to caricature Dhankhar, mock his baritone and unique style of speech only to entertain by ridicule, legal implications will follow. West Bengal BJP chief Sukanta Majumder, while condemning the act, said: “Mimicry is an art, but you have to understand where you are doing this… the Parliament staircase is not a place for mimicry. Also, the Vice-President cannot be the subject of your mimicry. If you do that repeatedly, questions will be raised on your mental stability.”

Banerjee, who has been among the oldest colleagues of Mamata Banerjee since she formed the Trinamool Congress in 1998, is known for his controversial remarks. He has proved to be a useful advocate for his party when it comes to tricky legal cases, representing it in various high-profile suits in the Calcutta High Court, where he has practised since 1981. He represented his party in innumerable trail-blazing legal proceedings such as the Rizwanur Rahman case where Rahman was said to have been driven to suicide by his influential Hindu in-laws, the Nandigram and Singur land agitations, both of which ended in helping the TMC’s rise against the Left Front, as well as the Chhota Angaria massacre of TMC activists. 

Kalyan had also taken up the Bhikari Paswan case that involved a custodial death. Currently, he is the TMC MP from Serampore in Hooghly district. He first won an assembly seat in 2001 from Asansol Uttar, and is now a three-time MP from Serampore. 

Banerjee has never been known to stop halfway in putting his point across, be it sobbing profusely while offering prayers at a Goddess Kali puja, belting out a Bollywood number, defending his party in court, or practising mimicry as an “art form” on the steps of Parliament. The fact that he was as gutsy as ever even before the TMC came to power was clear in 2009 when he attributed then CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s frequent visits to a film and cultural centre to his affinity to Scotch whiskey.

While President Droupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have expressed their disapproval over the mimicry act publicly, Rahul Gandhi, who was targeted by the BJP for filming the controversial act on his phone, rather than condemning it, hit back by asking: “Why is there no discussion [in the media] over 150 [Opposition] MPs being thrown out of the House.” He asked: “Who insulted and how? MPs were sitting there, I took their video which remains on my phone.”

President Murmu, in a rare comment, put out a post on X, saying she was dismayed to see the manner in which the vice-president was humiliated in the Parliament complex. “Elected representatives must be free to express themselves, but their expression should be within the norms of dignity and courtesy. That has been the Parliamentary tradition we are proud of, and the People of India expect them to uphold it.”

Dhankhar, on the other hand, referring to his interaction with the PM on the issue, posted: “He told me that he has been at the receiving end of such insults for 20 years and counting, but the fact that it could happen to a Constitutional office like the Vice-President and that too in Parliament was unfortunate.”

With the ruling party and the Opposition up in arms against each other, things have, indeed, deteriorated. 

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practicing in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi


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