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Priyanka Sharma has shown courage by making her support for BJP public, but lacks her own brand of expression

In the last one week, Priyanka Sharma has gone from being just another BJP youth volunteer to a national symbol of the oppression of the right to free speech. Earlier too, youngsters in other parts of the country have been booked for speaking up on social media. For instance, in 2017, 19-year-old S Thirumurugan was arrested from his house in Srivilliputhur, Tamil Nadu, and booked under Section 67 of the IT Act and Section 505 (public mischief) of the IPC for using abusive language on a Facebook chat. He was picked up based on a complaint from BJP district secretary K Marimuthu.

In this case, the girl happens to be a political worker and she was just one of the thousands who shared a meme of Mamata Banerjee’s face morphed on Priyanka Chopra’s Mad-hatter Met Gala look.

“There are plenty of people against Mamata Banerjee’s government but Trinamool Congress (TMC) goons are infamous for violence, and the fear of threats and attacks deters good people from joining the BJP in Bengal,” said Suraj, who has known Priyanka Sharma for three years.

 Priyanka Sharma has shown courage by making her support for BJP public, but lacks her own brand of expression

File image of Priyanka Sharma. Firstpost

He said that Priyanka was always available for rallies and booth level party work and was a known face locally. She was the Howrah district convener of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM).

In his opinion, the attack was geared more towards her presence at events on ground and the meme sparked the pent-up frustration of the local TMC leaders against Priyanka. He said she had adopted over a dozen stray dogs and participated keenly in party activities — be it the Swachh Bharat Mission cleaning drives or the NaMo Again campaigns.

Priyanka, he said, was also a key participant in the protest against Mamata Banerjee’s decision to bar Durga idol immersions on Muharram in 2017. However, when asked about which college Priyanka studied at or whether she has a job or an alternate career (volunteers are unpaid), Suraj said he had no clue.

In a press conference, BJYM chief and BJP MP from Mumbai North Central Poonam Mahajan acknowledged that she has a battery of lawyers to help the BJP youth wing combat hatred towards it in Kerala and Bengal. She also said that instances where cases have been fabricated and slapped against volunteers are quite common and that party volunteers have lost their lives in these states.

The threat to opposition forces within West Bengal keeps surfacing through attacks on BJP leaders. On 13 May, Union Minister Babul Supriyo alleged that TMC goons pelted stones at his security personnel's vehicles near West Bengal's Basirhat.

In the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections, on May 19, West Bengal’s Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin, Kolkata Uttar are going to the polls. Given the constant exchange of remarks between the West Bengal chief minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bengal finds itself at the centre of the war between the BJP and anti-BJP parties. The rage and anarchy that earlier seemed sporadic now seem far more systemic in West Bengal, and Priyanka is a manifestation of that. A volunteer of the ruling party in a state governed by its fierce opponent, has emerged as a  victim of freedom of speech. By trending on Twitter, she has earned the support of both the right and the left.

"Every other BJP volunteer gets threats from TMC workers. Priyanka has been threatened verbally and in person and had witnessed street brawls where TMC workers along with certain police officials have attacked BJP workers,” claims Rahul Upadhyay, a student of Swami Vivekanand Institute of Science and Technology and member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in Buxar, West Bengal.

He said that Priyanka's family was also aware of the threats she used to get for speaking up against Mamata government. "Our chief minister claims that the existence of BJP volunteers in Bengal can’t even be brought to light if one is to take a lantern and roam the streets of Bengal. What Didi will never add in the sentence is what all she does to suppress voices that go against her," added Upadhyay.

When asked about what Priyanka does for a living, he said she’s unemployed and didn’t know which university she had graduated from.

Priyanka's Facebook profile is that of an ordinary booth level worker. There are selfies, pictures from BJP rallies and political camps where she seems to be distributing NaMo Again caps and T-shirts. Even the BJP promotional messages she has shared on Facebook are generic, with pictures of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah and local slogans in Bangla. While Priyanka has shown courage to take a stand against a chief minister’s autocratic ways by constantly making her support for the saffron party public, she lacks her own brand of expression.

In Mamata Banerjee's Bengal, courage and not merit seems to be making heroes out of anonymous people who resist her ways.

Aside from the Lok Sabha elections reaching the last and most heated phase, the other situation that went into making Priyanka an instant hero was that lawyers in Kolkata are on strike. On 24 April, clashes broke out in Howrah between the police and lawyers, and ever since, the local lawyers have been on strike against the alleged brutality of the state police. Around 15,000 lawyers across 85 courts in West Bengal are on strike.

The prison population shot over its capacity and stood at 25,934 on Monday (13 May). Even bail petitions aren’t being moved. All work has come to a standstill, which is why Sharma’s matter wasn’t heard by the Kolkata High Court and BJYM had to approach senior advocate Neeral Kaul of the Supreme Court to expedite her release.

"The girl was in jail for simply sharing a meme. We had to ensure rapid release and ensure she gets justice," said Varun Jamwal, co-convener of the legal cell of BJYM, Delhi.

Priyanka was unfairly subjected to imprisonment for doing what nearly everybody does at some point or the other: share a meme on social media. But the scale at which the incident has been discussed also presents itself as an opportunity for her to turn into a voice of resistance in Bengal politics. Else, this what has snowballed on social media during election frenzy will die on social media as nothing more than an opportunity for the ruling party to shame the TMC’s supremo and her dictatorial ways.

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Updated Date: May 15, 2019 00:23:11 IST