Ambikesh Mahapatra might have preferred to lie low, being a professor of Chemistry in Kolkata’s renowned Jadavpur University. But for the overtly proactive police in his city, and an overtly sensitive chief minister, who feels stung at the slightest mock, banter and curious queries.
Arrested for purportedly sending e-mails of a cartoon that, again purportedly, show West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi and railway minister Mukul Roy in a poor light, Mahapatra has suddenly become prime time news, along with his neighbour, one Subrata Sengupta.
For those uninitiated with Bangla, or why this is humorous with a touch of innocence, a bit of a background first: the toon is based on a much-loved scene from the maestro Satyajit Ray’s film Sonar Kella, where a seven-year-old boy, Mukul, who believes he is in touch with his past life during the reign of the Marathas, is taken by a psychoanalyst on a tour of Rajasthan. The idea for this good doctor is to do a case study on the boy.
Two evil men, or “dushtu lok“, eyeing hidden treasures in the golden fortress, or ‘Sonar Kella‘, follow the duo, take the boy and push the doctor off the cliff.
Can you see Sonar Kella? The two ask the boy.
Where is that man (the doctor)? He is a “dushtu lok“, the boy replies, distractedly.
Dushtu lok? Vanish! One of the rogues replies, meaning the doc has been pushed off the cliff.
Now replace the characters: Mamata asking Mukul (Roy): Can you see Sonar Kella, Mukul? (Top frame)
Dushtu lok (read his predecessor as railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi).
Dushtu lok? Vanish! (Last frame)
The professor and his neighbour were arrested on April 13 for “sharing” this cartoon (see on right). For the two, it could well and truly be spooky Friday the 13th.
Now, before TV panelists start well-argued debates on freedom of speech and expression, a look at the grounds of “reasonable restrictions” of Article 19(1)(a) of Indian Constitution, which gives us those rights:
- Security of State:
- Friendly relations with foreign states.
- Public Order
- Decency or morality
- Contempt of Court
- Incitement to an offence
While the Constitution gives us the right to illustrate, appreciate, criticise and share cartoons lampooning public figures, what can Messrs Mahapatra and Sengupta be charged with? My limited application of logic leaves me with two grounds: Decency or morality, and Defamation.
Was the cartoon hitting anyone below the belt? The only bone of contention here can be the word “dushtu lok“, which in lay term means “naughty man” (I used the word ‘evil’ earlier because no one really calls a man naughty, do they!). All Bengalis I know of call kids naughty: “dushtu bachcha“. So the option for obscenity, and thereby “decency” or “morality” can go straight out the window.
And if it comes to that, Trinamool Congress leaders themselves called Dinesh Trivedi worse names following the Railway Budget. So if anyone has to be arrested, it’s gotta be Didi’s bhais.
Defamation? Ahem, of whom? It does not stand a chance for a charge under arrest, does it?
According to a report on India Today’s website, Mahapatra “faces charges of outraging the modesty of a woman, punishable with one year’s imprisonment, defamation, which carries a maximum term of two years, and hacking, which carries three years’ prison term and fine up to Rs 2 lakh”.
Outraging the modesty of a woman? I think two characters that could grumble about their modesty being apparently sullied are both men: Trivedi, for being called “dushtu” and Roy for the cartoon making him mouth that word. Outraging the modesty of a man isn’t a chargeable offence, at least not thus far in India.
Over to Kolkata Police DCP (South Suburban Division) Sujoy Chanda: “Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra has been arrested for spreading derogatory messages against respectable persons.”
“Derogatory messages”? As a family member reacted: “WTF!”, which could be slightly more derogatory that being said to say that you do not like your railway minister who went out of party line (as, and I repeat, all Trinamool leaders said in the aftermath of Trivedi’s budget) and made to mouth a line that you played Houdini and made your railway minister vanish, which Ms Banerjee did with Trivedi’s portfolio.
Another report said, “Mahapatra has been booked under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Section 500, 509 and 114 of the Indian Penal Code (punishment for defamation) have been slapped on the professor.”
I quote the same family member again: “Section 66 of IT Act deals with hacking. Again, WTF!”
On February 28, the day Bangla news channel Star Ananda broadcast an interview with a Kolkata resident, who was gangraped in a moving car at Park Street, Mamata Banerjee claimed it was a “staged event” to “malign” her government. The chief minister, in effect claimed the rape victim had lied, had schemed against her administration, and colluded with the news channel.
That’s derogatory, Ms Banerjee. That’s defamatory. It could also be taken as outraging the modesty of a woman. In fact, the chief minister could be detained, if not arrested, if the victim presses those charges against her.
I am reminded here of an article by fellow Howzziter Soumya Datta: Facebook Users Beware: Every Post you Make, Didi’s Watching. That was written on October 13, 2011, a time when West Bengal’s “intelligentsia”, a term they themselves use and one I find a little ridiculous, was still batting for the chief minister. The honeymoon period over, Bengal media, which shamelessly tangoed with Mamata Banerjee before and after the Assembly elections last year, not only buying but backing to the T her brand of ‘Paribartan‘ (change), got the first taste of her love for tolerance (democracy is too highfalutin a word) when Trinamool goons, along with plainclothed cops, bashed up TV journalists during a Left Front-sponsored bandh.
Close on the heels came the virtual ban on newspapers that criticised her government. (Read: Is Mamata’s Bengal Trying to Muzzle Free Media?)
The game has changed in Bengal. And my guess is, Mamata Banerjee has started getting the hints. Is she waiting for the Centre to eventually declare President’s Rule in a year or two, so that she can count on sympathy votes to climb back to power?
And I seriously wonder whether that last statement is seditious, and which would lead her administration to arrest the writer and ban this website.
PS: If Mahapatra was arrested for sending the cartoon to 65 persons, I wonder what happens to the bigwigs of news channels who are showing the toon non-stop since morning, thus reaching out to millions.