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The Toongate Controversy

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 18, 2012 No Comment

The news of the arrest of Ambikesh Mohapatra, professor of physical chemistry and kinetics at Jadavpur University (West Bengal, India) spread like wildfire across the nation over the last week. People rallied together, on the streets and on social networking sites, to protest what has been popularly called a “fascist” move: the arrest of an Indian academic who shared a cartoon electronically, showing the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee (who came to power in a remarkable upset last year) in what was labeled “poor light.” Ms. Banerjee, it is interesting to note, has just been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Prof. Mohapatra, 50, was arrested along with Subatra Sengupta, 75, his neighbor, whose principal criminal action seemed to be that “he was present when Mahapatra sent the mail.” Here is the cartoon (translated version provided below).

The “derogatory” cartoon depicts “the chief minister and the railway minister exchanging dialogues from a popular Bengali film [Sonar Kella] by Satyajit Ray which alluded to the replacement of Dinesh Trivedi by Mukul Roy as railway minister.” Initial reports stated that Prof. Mohapatra had been jailed under different sections of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) as well as the Information technology Act for sending the “defamatory mail.” The cartoon was described as an “offensive and non-featurable picture of our honorable chief minister,” according to a police officer involved in the matter. Reports also indicated that Prof. Mohapatra faced “charges of outraging the modesty of a woman (punishable with a year’s imprisonment), defamation which carries a maximum term of two years and hacking, punishable with three years’ prison term and fine up to Rs 2 lakh [2,00,000].” Prof. Mohapatra was released on bail the next day, but has given interviews of living in fear for his life.

Alarmingly, this move is not an entirely atypical incident from Ms. Banerjee’s tenure so far. In March of this year, the West Bengal government announced that public libraries would not be permitted to subscribe to English-language newspapers. Ms. Banerjee criticized the resultant controversy by calling it a “small matter” and the “handiwork of a ‘mischievous section,'” but did end up allowing one English newspaper to be added to the permitted list. In addition, Facebook has been asked by the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department to delete materials that are “offensive” to Ms. Banerjee (and other party leaders), and to provide IP addresses “of those responsible for posting it online.” There was also talk of Ms. Banerjee’s party workers scouring Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds in order to find out if anyone is defaming the Chief Minister. There are, of course, general concerns about freedom of speech in India, at a time when:

India’s central government to freedom of expression is also being called into question. Earlier this year, government requested internet firms including Facebook and Google Inc. to pre-screen content posted by users that may be considered offensive. They also are facing a criminal suit for allegedly hosting content deemed offensive on their websites. The companies deny any wrongdoing and say pre-screening their websites for offensive content is impossible.

As an Indian, and as a Bengali with extended family and roots in West Bengal, I am outraged that the Chief Minister and her party could so aggressively bully and attack a private individual who shared what can only reasonably be called a mild political cartoon over the Internet. The fact that this beleaguered individual is an academic angers me still more; academia that is not allowed the freedom to  dissent cannot thrive. That this plays out in West Bengal-home to some of the greatest Indian intellectuals, revolutionaries, and thinkers-is not just heart-breaking; it’s tragic.

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