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Lost chance to right a wrong

If arresting a professor for forwarding an email lampooning the chief minister was a show of might, the Mamata Banerjee government’s refusal to act on the human rights commission’s recommendation in the case is seen as a mockery of moral responsibility.

Civil society has criticised the government for bypassing an opportunity — even if a belated one — to right a wrong the way Maharashtra did last week by suspending the police officers responsible for the arrest of two young women over a Facebook post.

Retired Supreme Court judge Ashok Kumar Ganguly, handpicked by Mamata to head the state rights commission, had recommended similar action against police officers M.K. Das and S. Biswas for invoking a draconian provision in the Information Technology Act to arrest Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta in April.

“You don’t need a human rights commission if the state doesn’t pay heed to it. It is a mockery of democracy that the state sets up a commission and then reduces it to a redundant institution,” a retired high court justice said.

While an elected government is within its rights to reject or accept the recommendations of a rights commission, Bengal stands accused of belittling the institution.

“I brought a very good person and gave him a post. Not someone from my party but someone a little neutral. But then what do I see — Oh God! He has no clue at all. He writes as if he is the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the President of the country!” chief minister Mamata had declared a day after retired justice Ganguly submitted his recommendations in the professor arrest case.

She didn’t name the object of her derision but nobody doubted who it was.

It was Ganguly’s first report since being appointed chairman of the rights commission. Apart from disciplinary action against the police officers, he had recommended compensation of Rs 50,000 each to Mahapatra and his neighbour.

“What’s the point in having a commission if this government doesn’t have the patience, let alone tolerance, to listen to a chairman picked by the chief minister herself?” demanded Union minister Deepa Das Munshi.

According to her, “silencing” the human rights commission was no less a subversion of justice than stripping citizens of their constitutional rights.

“Bengal should have learnt from Maharashtra how to restore confidence in the rule of law,” the Congress leader said.

Maharashtra made amends for the wrongful arrests — the two young women had questioned why the whole of Mumbai should be shut on the day of Bal Thackeray’s cremation — within a week.

Bengal hasn’t moved a muscle against the cops responsible for professor Mahapatra and neighbour Sengupta’s arrest in more than six months since the incident and three months since the rights commission submitted its report.

The man in the muddle doesn’t know whom to approach in his quest for justice against the might of the state machinery. “I haven’t received any compensation and the police officers who arrested me haven’t been punished either. If the rights commission can be gagged, where does the ordinary citizen go?” the Jadavpur University professor said.

Mahapatra can move the high court against the government, seeking redress for non-compliance of the commission’s recommendations. The rights commission can do likewise, though sources said there was no plan to take the unprecedented step of dragging the state to court.

Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra said the state government’s response to the rights commission’s recommendations in the professor arrest case smacked of “despotic” behaviour.

“The state has a moral obligation to abide by the observations of the human rights commission. If the government starts behaving in a despotic manner, the chief minister must take the blame,” Mishra said.

Eminent jurists are chosen to head rights commissions in most states to lend credibility to the institution. Mamata’s call to paribartan too had come with a promise to restore the rights that she claimed were trampled during 34 years of Left rule.