HC upholds Rs 50k relief to JU professor over toon row
KOLKATA: In yet another legal blow to the Mamata Banerjee government, Calcutta high court on Tuesday upheld the compensation recommended by West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC) to Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was arrested in 2012 for forwarding an email joke on the chief minister.
Justice Dipankar Datta also ordered a probe into the role of two police officers involved in the arrest of Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, president of the housing society where the JU teacher lives. The court ordered the state government to pay Rs 50,000 each to Mahapatra and Sengupta plus joint litigation costs of Rs 50,000 to the duo within a month.
Mahapatra, who teaches chemistry at JU, said: “Had the state government heeded the recommendations of WBHRC, matters wouldn’t have come to this. This is a defeat for the state government. I am happy that the court has upheld the democratic rights of people. This is necessary as there is regular abuse of human rights in this state.”
Justice (retd) Ashok Kumar Ganguly, who was chairman of WBHRC when the recommendation was made, hailed the order but doesn’t view it as a personal victory. “It is the role of the court of law to uphold human rights. I am happy that the right of people to fight for justice has been upheld,” he said.
Interestingly, trial in the infamous ‘cartoon case’ is on in a lower court, where Mahapatra is accused under the IT Act for “sending false and offensive messages through communication services”. With Tuesday’s judgment and the HC order to probe the very officers who framed the chargesheet against Mahapatra, it remains to be seen how the trial goes.
After Tuesday’s HC judgment, Opposition leaders and rights activists tore into the government. CPM leader and well known lawyer Bikash Bhattacharya said: “Ambikesh was heckled at the insistence of Mamata Banerjee. This was the first time when a victim was taken into custody and not the miscreants.” BJP’s Roopa Ganguly said: “In today’s world, slapping criminal cases on cartoons shared on the net is unthinkable. I feel the action reeked of outright vindictiveness by the government. I hope saner voices prevail.”
The incident dates back to April 12, 2012 — less than a month after Mamata removed Dinesh Trivedi as railway minister for hiking railway fares and appointed Mukul Roy in his place. One of several cartoons doing the rounds on social networking sites was a spoof of the Satyajit Ray film Sonar Kella, which has a child character named Mukul. The cartoon depicted Mamata pointing to the Indian Railways’ logo and saying: “Oi dekho Mukul, Sonar Kella (Look Mukul, the Golden Fortress).” Mukul Roy points to Trivedi and says: “Dushtu Lok (Evil Man).” In the next slide, there is no sign of Trivedi and Mamata tells Roy: “Dushtu Lok, Vanish.”
All that Mahapatra did was forward this cartoon to some friends using Sengupta’s e-mail account. Soon after this, he apologized. But a mob of Trinamool workers stormed his house at night and forced him to sign a statement that he was a CPM supporter. The professor and Sengupta were arrested and charged under the IT Act. Mahapatra was also charged with defamation (dropped a few months later). The duo had to spend a night at the police station and got bail the next day. Legal proceedings continued against them. Mamata stood by the police and said that “conspiracies won’t be tolerated and offenders will be arrested”.
The WBHRC took up the matter suo motu and on August 13, 2012, recommended that the state pay Rs 50,000 each to the two as compensation and initiate departmental proceedings against Milan Kumar Das, then additional OC of Purba Jadavpur police station and sub-inspector Sanjoy Biswas. The state was to reply within six weeks. The state sat on it for nine months before writing back on May 6, 2013, that there had been no violation of human rights since police had arrested Mahapatra and Sengupta to “protect them from a mob”. The rights body wrote back to the government, saying it doesn’t agree with the reasons cited and urged reconsideration. The state government refused to do so. Finally, Mahapatra and Sengupta moved high court.