Sarabpreet Singh, a 28-year-old entrepreneur in Ranchi, is still perplexed about how he had to spend eight days in jail for a meme of Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das that he had created for April Fool’s Day. Singh was arrested on April 3, on the basis of a complaint filed the same day by Perfetti Van Melle India Limited, makers of Mentos mints, whose advertisement campaign was the inspiration behind his parody video. But what he still has not figured out is how the police landed up at his home, enquiring about him and speaking to his neighbours, on April 2 – a full day before the complaint was filed.

Singh – who runs a job internship portal and another one dealing with digital signatures as well as a digital studio – had posted the 32-second video on his blog, Made in Ranchi, on his Twitter handle @madeinranchi and his Facebook page on April 1. Singh said he tweeted it with the hashtag #AprilFoolsDay, suggesting it was a prank. The clip shows footage of the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state’s chief minister in the Assembly yelling “Saale, mircha lag raha hain” [colloquially, ”you are feeling jealous”] juxtaposed with footage from a Bollywood film song with the lyrics “mirchi lagi” (feeling jealous). In between, the video plays voice overs of the Mentos advertisement.

On April 3, the police registered a first information report based on Perfetti Van Melle India’s complaint. To Singh’s surprise, the first information report was registered not against him or any individual but against the tweet. The FIR, police complaint and court documents – all accessed by Scroll.in – identify the case as “State v/s a Twitter account link http://twitter.com/madeinranchi/status/980348068846485504”.

Singh’s Twitter handle was suspended on April 5, with no reason given. He was released on bail on April 10. His arrest sparked a debate on freedom of expression in Ranchi and a Facebook campaign, #FreeSarabpreet.

A screenshot of the post shared on Twitter on April 1.
A screenshot of the post shared on Twitter on April 1.

‘Rogue display of authority’

The charges against Singh include cheating, impersonation, committing fraud, causing public mischief and defamation under the Indian Penal Code as well as under the Copyright Act, the Trade Marks Act and the Information Technology Act.

In the police complaint, Perfetti Van Melle India mentions infringement of its trademark and copyright. It also states that the accused sought to “demean and denigrate honourable and respectable chief minister and other political dignitaries of the state of Jharkhand”.

Several lawyers Scroll.in spoke with questioned the defamation charge, pointing out that the complainant in this case is the company and not the chief minister or any political figure, and that the company has not specifically alleged that the parody video hurt its reputation. They said the other penal offences invoked in the case are also dubious.

“The charges in this case do not follow the letter and spirit of the law,” said Delhi lawyer Tara Narula. “Typically, charges under the Trade Marks Act are attracted in cases of large-scale infringement. In a case of this kind, where the use of the brand name is neither for gain nor malicious, the police action and eventual custody is inexplicable and rare.”

Bidit Deka, who also practises law in the national capital, said, “This rogue display of authority by exploiting penal provisions for gratifying egotistical cravings is regretful. The video is unmistakably a parody, meant for sarcasm purposes. It will be interesting to see the contents of the final report of the police.”

Manav Kumar, a lawyer who specialises in intellectual property cases, said the Copyright Act has room for such sarcasm. “The law says, a fair dealing with a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work for the purpose of criticism of review of that work or some other work for reporting some current event does not lead to infringement of copyright.”

Sharaddha Kerketta, the officer in charge of the Cyber Police Station in Ranchi tasked with the investigation, told Scroll.in the case cannot be discussed at this point.

The world of memes

This is not the first time in India that a meme has landed its creator in trouble.

A meme is an activity, concept, catch phrase or a piece of media that spreads, often as mimicry or for the purpose of humour, from person to person through the internet. It could be an image, a video or text, or a combination of all this.

In July, the cyber cell of the Mumbai Police had registered a first information report against comedy sketch group All India Bakchod for a meme that used Snapchat’s dog filter on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There is definitely a lot of risk involved when the parody features any person or enterprise that is influential,” said Rahul Bhattacharya, founder of the Quick Reaction Team that produces experimental videos on the internet. “The risk is much higher for content producers who are small players in the market. They do not have the resources to defend themselves in such cases.”

According to Bhattacharya, some enterprises that produce memes have small-term revenue models. They offer their services to social media users who want their Facebook pages, Twitter handles and Instagram accounts to be popular. This is how it works: they create content that the social media users post and as the content goes viral, the users get more followers. Decisions regarding the type of content to invest in depends on what is popular in meme networks at any point of time.

However, for Sarabpreet Singh, money is not the objective behind his meme project. “The idea is to use such creative ventures as a gateway to other avenues such as stand up gigs and bigger projects that are sponsored by companies,” he said. Singh quit a corporate job in Mumbai in 2016 to invest all his time in his startups.

Singh said the template for his memes is usually based on television commercials, such as Mentos’ “Aam Zindagi versus Mentos Zindagi” in this case. Perfetti Van Melle India started this campaign in 2007 and announced fresh investment for new advertisements under this concept in 2015.

“There are hundreds of such commercial templates that are popular in the meme networks,” said Singh. “Some of the most popular ones at this point are based on TV commercials of Drake and Trivago. One has to constantly keep tabs on social media platforms to understand which advertisement template is trending at what point.”

Days after his release, Singh found himself in front of the camera. A non-governmental organisation had approached him for a short video story of his case. “But my prime concern is getting my phone and gadgets released at the earliest,” he said. “They are still with the police.”