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OFF THE BOOK

When a job is simple and right, West Bengal shows the least eagerness to do it. But Maharashtra has done it — in just over a week of the perceived wrong. The Maharashtra government has suspended the policemen who arrested a girl for commenting negatively on Facebook on the shutdown in Mumbai after Bal Thackeray’s death, and another girl for supporting her on the same forum. The government has also transferred the magistrate who put their bail amount at Rs 15,000. There was general outrage immediately after the arrest, and the state government, under the chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, felt either that the freedom of speech had been violated, or that the provision of the Information and Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 that had been applied had been misused; most likely, the government saw it would be wise to listen to the people, to rights activists and to experts. But none of these considerations seem to matter to the West Bengal government. No one has made amends to the professor from Jadavpur University, who was arrested under the same provision for having e-mailed a cartoon of the Bengal chief minister and the erstwhile railway minister.

The Maharashtra government’s quick action has drawn praise from the chairman of the Press Council, Markandey Katju, formerly a judge of the Supreme Court. The question is not only of the repression of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, but also of misdirected police action. Both are relevant to the situation in Bengal. Mr Katju has compared the attitudes of the governments of Maharashtra and West Bengal, and followed this up with a communication to the Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Intolerance of dissent was gradually becoming the hallmark of politics in Bengal in the last regime; what is shocking is that the much-touted ‘change’ seems to have intensified this intolerance instead of erasing it. Any hint of criticism, even if humorously couched, is now open to reprisal, whether it be against policy or politics, opinion or person. A new atmosphere of fear is being created, where ‘speaking up’ is becoming an act of courage. The police are just anxious to comply with the wishes of people in power, and the most draconian provisions are being dredged up for purposes of repression. Fairness, balance, freedom of thought and speech are no longer concepts with which the West Bengal government seems familiar.