Can you imagine being assaulted and arrested for simply forwarding a cartoon?
It happens in India. More specifically, it happened to Dr. Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, India.
The incident was sparked by the forwarding of a political collage cartoon by email to approximately sixty-five resident members of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society (Dr. Mahapatra is Assistant Secretary of the Society). The cartoon was a mild critique on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
One of the recipients of the email took offence to the image, and on April 12, 2012, a mob headed and lead by Trinamool Congress Party members (the party of Chief Minister Banerjee) assaulted Dr. Mahapatra and Mr. Subrata Sengupta (the Secretary of the Society). When the police arrived at the scene, instead of arresting members of the mob for assault, Dr. Mahapatra and Mr. Subrata Sengupta were arrested and charged with outraging the modesty of a woman, defamation and using the Internet to defame another. It is worth to note that the leader of the group, and the one to file the complaint (on which the charges are based) with the police was Mr. Amit Sardar. Amit Sardar is not a member of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society and therefore was not a recipient of the email. His interest stems from his position as leader of the Trinamool Congress Party.
The cartoon that caused the incedent. For background and explanation of the cartoon, head over to the website of CRNI.
News of the incident spread, causing outrage among many freedom-loving Indians and prominent public figures, many of whom called for these laws to be changed, because they contradict with freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in the Indian constitution. On August 13, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission Rules ruled in favor of Dr. Mahapatra and Mr. Subrata Sengupta, and condemned the police action. However, this ruling had no influence on the charges they were facing.
For a more comprehensive and detailed overview of the incident, please visit the website of Cartoonists Rights Network International.
We talk to Dr. Mahapatra about the most recent developments in his case, and about freedom of expression in India.
Professor Mahapatra, the latest update in your case is this:
A student of Delhi Law University (Shreya Singhal) filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition before The Supreme Court of India to abolish or modify Section 66A of Information Technology Act under which Ambikesh Mahaputra and Subrata Sengupta) were booked and charge sheeted. This section was used (rather misused) in other states of India to arrest others. The use of this section in many states including state of West Bengal certainly contradicts the constitutional fundamental rights of freedom of expression. The Union Government admits it and trying to modify this section to protect constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of India after first hearing on 30.Nov 2012 directed all states including state of West Bengal to submit an affidavit explaining the arrest of us under section 66A of IT Act before the Supreme Court of India within 4 weeks. This 4 week date line will over on 28 Dec 2012.
What are the latest developments?
Till to date, I do not know whether Government of West Bengal has submitted the affidavit explaining the arrest of us under 66A of IT Act, though the deadline of date of submission is over. So I do not know the content of this affidavit also, if it is submitted. It is a legal property. The Government of West Bengal is to submit directly to the Supreme Court of India. The next hearing date of this PIL case in the Supreme Court of India is 14th January 2013.
Beside this, different NGOs are planning for legal battle against this draconian section, 66A of IT Act which is against the Indian constitutional fundamental rights of freedom of expression.
Do you belief in a positive outcome?
I am very much optimistic about a positive outcome. I have faith in the people & the media and as the situation prevails I am not at all alone. I believe the constitutional rights will be ensured. It is just the question of time.
Is your case representative of the situation in India, with regards to freedom of
Of course, yes. But mine is not the only one where a gross violation of human rights in reference to freedom of expression has taken place. We must fight it all together.
In recent years (with the obvious exception of your case), have things been getting
better or worse in India?
I would say both. It is getting better in the sense that we the people, are getting stronger and stronger. The people have understood that keeping yourself mum is not at all good for a healthy democracy. The media is also playing their role. So, all together, the situation has been improving. And what is worse is the fact that even after such a huge pool of protest from different sections, the ruling party is not ready to learn a lesson especially the WB Government.
How important is it to be able to criticize and lampoon political leaders?
It was very difficult, is difficult and will be difficult to criticize the political leaders. But we must
do it. We have the support of the people, the society, the media, and the different organization (State level, National level & International level). Freedom of expression is our fundamental right & we must protect it at any cost.
Has your recent experience lead you to censor yourself more (for instance, when it
comes to criticizing Mamata Banerjee), or has it made you want to become involved more in the struggle for freedom of expression?
Forget about censoring myself from the struggle for freedom of expression, day by day I
am getting involved in it more and more. My conscience was always in favour of this freedom
and I will never fall apart from it. I have the strength of people with me.