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SONAR BANGLE

- Joke arrests spread scare

Sir,
We submit to you that Ambikesh Mahapatra (and) Subrata Sengupta… sent, from the mail of the (co-op society) board, an obscene printout and message in the name of the honourable chief minister at 7.38pm on March 22, 2012, to all the members of the said board. Besides, they visited the house of each board member and maligned the characters of the chief minister and other central ministers and used obscene language. Therefore, we humbly request you to arrange for the strictest of the strict punishment for them

Excerpts from a complaint filed by a man who identified himself as a Trinamul member at East Jadavpur police station. Based on the complaint, the Jadavpur University professor and the retired engineer were arrested at 12.40am on Friday

If you are still not wearing such handcuffs in Bengal, Subha Nava Varsha and read on...

Calcutta, April 13: A Jadavpur University professor and a 72-year-old retired engineer have been arrested for allegedly circulating clips of an Internet joke about chief minister Mamata Banerjee and charged with trying to outrage her modesty.

Fittingly, the police crackdown got off the ground 40 minutes past the appointed hour for the dreaded midnight knock.

The professor and the retired engineer were granted bail this evening though police had sought judicial custody for a fortnight.

By the time the surreal events had ensured that the joke with subtle rapier thrusts, inspired by one of the most loved films of Satyajit Ray, had taken on a life of its own and grown into the talk of the country, the contours of an unsettling picture had emerged in Bengal.

First, you can’t laugh in Bengal at the expense of those in power.

“This is very autocratic…. I earlier did not want to use the word ‘scary’ but I have to admit that this scares me,” said economist Abhirup Sarkar, who has been a vocal supporter of the new government on several issues.

Second, even the everyday act of circulating something that you have found humorous could cause you bodily harm and invite police action.

Third, if you happen to be the secretary of your residential society and if someone uses the society’s mail to send jokes that the ruling party finds offensive, you are in trouble.

Fourth, the offence of attempting to outrage the modesty of a woman has been given a mystifying definition. The Telegraph is publishing the cartoon (left) so that readers can make up their own mind if it outrages the modesty of anyone and if it is obscene as charged.

Sukanta Chaudhuri, the renowned academic known for measured words, expressed incredulity. “When the chief minister of the state is a woman, then should every criticism of the government now amount to insulting the honour of a woman? Then any speech becomes impossible!” said Chaudhuri, professor emeritus, Jadavpur University.

If you manage to escape or survive all the tribulations mentioned above, you still can be beaten up near your home and forced to sign a confessional statement — the fate that awaited Mahapatra, the chemistry professor, on the intervening night of Thursday and Friday.

The arrests, based on a complaint signed by a Trinamul Congress local committee member, took place after the professor was beaten up outside the gates of his co-operative housing society at New Garia, on the south-eastern fringes of the city.

The attackers, some of whom Mahapatra said he recognised, forced him to sign an undertaking that said he was an “active CPM worker” and had forwarded the mail to the other members of the housing society with a “motive”.

‘I was crying’

“I was crying. I was begging for my life. They kept beating me. I had no option but to give the declarations,” he said after being released on bail on Friday evening.

The police booked Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, the secretary of the New Garia Development Co-operative Housing Society Ltd, on charges of intent to insult the modesty of a woman through words and gesture, defamation and dissemination through computer of information that they knew was false but was meant to “cause annoyance, inconvenience, criminal intimidation”, etc.

The joke has been in circulation on the Net since Mukul Roy was sworn in as railway minister on March 20. Between then and now, those who trawl the Net for jokes on the chief minister would have had ample time to sample the clip. Those who had not read the joke till now were made aware of it today by the police action.

Insiders familiar with the workings of the police in Calcutta said the arrest of a Jadavpur University professor could not have taken place without the chief minister’s knowledge.

“Usually, before a formal complaint has been registered, we try to assess the motive of the accused. If we see no malice, the person is let off with a warning,” said an officer at Lalbazar.

ID apology

Mahapatra, the assistant secretary of the housing society, had forwarded the mail on April 3. Three days later, he sent an apology to all the recipients because he realised he should not have used the housing society’s official ID to forward a joke.

Retired engineer Sengupta, who repeatedly pleaded with the attackers to spare Mahapatra last night, was arrested because the mails from the society’s official ID were deemed to have been sent on his behalf.

An officer of the East Jadavpur police station said they responded to a call last night and went to New Garia. “We got a call at the police station saying someone who had tried to malign the chief minister had been caught. A team was sent to the spot and the accused taken to the police station.”

A senior officer of the south suburban division added: “By the time the accused had been brought to the police station, a section of the people who had handed them to the police had reached the police station and lodged a complaint.”

Mischief, says CM

The chief minister appeared to defend the arrest. At the foundation stone-laying for a private medical college in Durgapur, she said: “If someone commits some mischief, what will police do? Won’t they arrest him? And if somebody is arrested, the CPM’s two channels and a handful of newspapers will start a slander campaign against us. They will show it through the day.”

Sending a message to the CPM, she added: “I will feed you well, dress you well, let you sleep in a cool room and ensure all comforts but you have to go to sleep for 10 years.”

Mahapatra said he used to send mails on Sengupta’s behalf as the latter was not savvy with computers. “I had forwarded the mail to 60-odd people. But some of my neighbours told me they didn’t approve of my using the official ID. So, I mailed an apology to all the members of the society on April 6 for using the co-operative’s mail ID.”

The beating

Mahapatra was returning home from the university around 8 last night when the alleged Trinamul supporters pounced on him.

Led by a building materials supplier, they had allegedly been harassing the members of the housing society since the afternoon and claiming dues worth Rs 17 lakh. The complex 2km south of Peerless Hospital has 550 houses.

The group had gone there armed with printouts of the joke, although the stated purpose of the visit was collection of dues. Society sources confirmed some outstanding payments but disputed the amount.

Waving the printout, the alleged supporters cried insult to the chief minister. “We know what you are up to,” a neighbour of Mahapatra quoted the attackers as saying.

They left in the afternoon and returned late in the evening. Seeing Mahapatra, they screamed “Dhor byata ke (Catch him).”

“There were 20 to 25 people who first asked me why I had sent such a mail. I told them it was a mistake and apologised but they started beating me up mercilessly,” the professor said.

The victim turned the culprit when the police came. Sources said the attack and the police complaint appeared “pre-planned because of the speed at which the formal complaint was lodged”, almost at the same time as the arrival of the accused at the police station.

Mahapatra and Sengupta were among five men named in the FIR.

Asked why only the two of them had been arrested, an officer of East Jadavpur police station said: “Because they were the ones handed over to us. The complainant held Ambikesh as the main accused. We are conducting a probe against the three others.”

Mahapatra, popular among his students and neighbours, told The Telegraph he was a Left supporter but not an activist.

Wife’s fears

His wife, who teaches chemistry at a college, said the family had been apprehensive since the change of guard because of his political leanings. “But I could never have imagined him being beaten up the way he was,” Jolly Mahapatra said.

Although she was home, she had not realised her husband was under attack until he called her from a police jeep on the way to the police station.

At the Alipore court, the police sought a fortnight’s jail custody for the two. “The sections under which they have been booked are bailable,” said defence lawyer Sanjeeb Ganguly. Acting chief judicial magistrate Suparna Roy granted them bail.

Mahapatra, who identified Sonar Kella as one of his favourite films, clarified he had apologised only for having used the official ID, not for circulating the joke