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Bengal whispers get a voice

Calcutta, Nov. 29: If a Supreme Court bench today voiced the country’s “outrage” at harassment of citizens, it took a former Supreme Court judge to tell what “terrorised” ministers and officials apparently won’t tell the chief minister of Bengal.

“From what I could gather during my visits to Kolkata, your ministers and bureaucrats are afraid to speak out their minds fearlessly before you and are terrorised by your unpredictable and whimsical behaviour,” Markandey Katju, the Press Council of India chairman and retired judge, said in a message that he hoped would be conveyed to Mamata Banerjee.

Justice Katju pushed his luck further by proceeding to advise the chief minister to “change your ways”. He listed — step by step — a process through which she can redeem herself and “go up in the esteem of the people of West Bengal, and indeed the whole country”.

Fundamental to the suggestions are action against police officers who harassed a Jadavpur University professor for emailing a joke, dropping similar cases and apologising to the teacher and other victims. .

The Bengal government has so far refused to take action against the police officers, although the state human rights commission’s recommendation to do so is in place for months. On Wednesday, The Telegraph had reported on the Mamata government’s refusal to act against the officers, although Maharashtra did so.

Justice Katju’s statement assumes significance against this backdrop. The Bengal chief minister has been repeatedly saying a section of the media is arrayed against her, often prefixing the dirtiest phrase in her lexicon — “CPM-backed” — to dismiss any criticism.

No such adjectives can be yoked to Katju. He may be heading a media watchdog that does not have fangs but his moral and ethical underpinnings are beyond reproach and he brings to Bengal a distant but deafening voice that cannot be given a bad name and then mob-lynched — a time-tested tactic of police states.

Like the message, the medium also is important in this instance — a similar statement by an Opposition leader would not have carried the same credibility.

The “correct” manner in which Mamata referred to Katju’s statement was evidence of her dilemma in tackling withering criticism from a respected judge who had once praised her.

Ami kono chithi paai ni, (I didn’t get any letter),” the chief minister told a news conference in response to a question.

Justice Katju had actually emailed the letter to the official address of Nandini Chakravorty, the secretary in charge of information and cultural affairs department, with a request to “communicate the message” to the chief minister.

It could not be confirmed from Chakravorty whether she had placed Katju’s mail on the chief minister’s table.

“I wrote to Nandiniji because I had her email ID, whereas I do not have the email ID of the chief minister. Nandiniji is the secretary, information, government of West Bengal, and the Press Council usually interacts with state governments through the secretary, information, of the state government,” Katju told The Telegraph.

According to him, the trigger behind the email was the action that the chief minister of Maharashtra took by ordering the suspension of the police officers behind the arrest of two young women for expressing their views.

At Writers’, no one would place a bet on whether Mamata would accept Katju’s advice. “We are all human beings and we all make mistakes, but a gentleman is one who realises his mistake and apologises,” the former judge said in his message.

Promise of rectification of past mistakes — if any — features in most of Mamata’s public speeches. “But I cannot recollect any instance of she apologising for past mistakes,” said a close aide of Mamata.

According to the aide, as the chief minister sincerely believes that all her actions are intended at benefiting common people, she never concedes making any mistake.

A case in point was her statement this afternoon about the logic behind her government’s hands-off land policy. “Amar dwara konodin manusher khoti hoi ni (No one has ever been harmed by my actions),” Mamata said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Justice Katju advised Mamata to follow the tenets of Arthashastra in which Kautilya had underscored the importance of listening to good counsel.

Several bureaucrats said the situation was “diametrically the opposite” in Bengal — they also indirectly confirmed Katju’s conclusion of “fear” in the corridors of power by declining to be quoted on record.

The chief minister has created at least five new commissionarates and two more are in the pipeline, ignoring former chief secretary Samar Ghosh’s suggestion of going about it in a phased manner after assessing the impact.

“Recently, a secretary was pulled up for non-payment of honorarium to imams and muezzins. Fact is no such funds were allotted to the department, but the truth could not be told,” said an official.

Some officials said the chief minister did most of the talking at administrative meetings. “By now, we have got used to just toeing her line,” said an official.