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Theft slur on ‘dissenter’ teacher

A college teacher known to be critical of the Mamata Banerjee government in television panel discussions has been accused of stealing Rs 1,530 and two mobile phones from a lorry in the Kidderpore area.

Hastings police station has started a criminal case against Debasish Sarkar, economics teacher at Jhargram Raj College, following a complaint in English lodged by a 24-year-old who identified himself as a lorry driver: “…The driver and passenger of a private car bearing registration xxxx (Sarkar’s vehicle number) arrived at our cabin and snatched Rs 1,530 and two mobile phones and immediately fled away from the spot,” states the complaint, filed on Tuesday.

Sarkar, who lives in Tollygunge, came to know about the charges against him on Wednesday night. Two policemen from Charu Market police station went to his home and asked him to contact an officer at Hastings police station, where they said a case had been filed against him on suspicion of his involvement in some “antisocial activity”.

“It was around 10pm when the doorbell rang and I was shocked to see a person who introduced himself as a policeman from Charu Market police station. I was told that I was involved in antisocial activity and I would have to contact an officer at Hastings police station immediately,” Sarkar recounted to Metro.

Sarkar called an officer at Hastings police station to know what “antisocial activity” he had been accused of and was told that it was a complaint of theft.

“I was told that my car had been spotted in the Kidderpore area and someone had lodged a complaint, saying that some people who were in the vehicle at that time had committed theft. I was baffled because the complaint said my car was seen in Kidderpore between 4 and 4.30pm, when I was on my way home after dropping my daughter and wife at the airport,” Sarkar said.

The economics teacher was asked over the phone to provide details about his vehicle, including the registration number, colour, model and where it was at that moment. Sarkar replied that his vehicle, a dark grey Tata Indigo, was parked in his garage.

Sarkar went to Lalbazar on Thursday to submit in writing details of his experience the night before.

“I told the officer in detail about the route I took while driving back home from the airport (on Tuesday) and also the fact that in no way I could be anywhere near Kidderpore at 4.30pm. I don’t have a driver since I drive myself. So there is no question of any driver taking my vehicle and being present at the scene of crime that has been reported,” Sarkar said.

The police said a man named Mohammad Nazish Farhan had lodged the complaint.

“We received a complaint of theft against the occupant of a vehicle whose number matched that of Debasish Sarkar. Acting on that complaint, our officers questioned him and he managed to satisfy the officer. Now that Sarkar has expressed his disappointment over the issue, citing that his vehicle was not at the place where the alleged offence took place, we will investigate all possible angles,” joint commissioner of police (headquarters) Rajeev Mishra said.

The charge of theft against Sarkar is a non-bailable one and carries a maximum punishment of three years in jail.

Senior police officers ruled out the possibility of arresting Sarkar immediately. They said the lorry driver might have made a mistake in noting down the number of the vehicle or the robbers were using a forged number plate.

But many, including Sarkar, who is the general secretary of the CPM-affiliated West Bengal Government College Teachers’ Association, questioned whether it was just a mistake or a malicious attempt to harass him.

Sources cited “the lack of crucial details” in the complaint and the promptness with which the police responded to the allegation of theft as questionable. The complaint does not say where the driver was when the alleged theft occurred or why he didn’t try to resist the accused or raise an alarm.

Under the Mamata government, the police have been accused of “creating” cases against known and perceived dissenters. The known instances include the arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for circulating an Internet joke lampooning the chief minister, that of farmer Shiladitya Chowdhury who had wanted to question the chief minister about rising fertiliser prices at a public rally, and the almost 24-hour interrogation of film-maker Suman Mukhopadhyay.

Sarkar told Metro that he had informed the police commissioner in writing about his shock and outrage at being accused of theft. “I felt humiliated at having to report at the police headquarters and to justify my whereabouts on the day the alleged incident took place,” he said.

Sarkar had spent barely three years out of the six he is entitled to serve in his first stint at a college in Calcutta when he was transferred from Goenka College of Commerce and Business Administration to Jhargram. That was soon after the Trinamul government took charge in 2011.

The reason cited then was that the Mamata government wanted to break the backbone of the CPM-backed teachers’ union, of which Sarkar remains a member. “His transfer to Jhargram was considered a punishment posting because there is hardly any student in the economics department of that college. He practically has no work there,” a source said.

In 2012, Sarkar had been showcaused for appearing on news channels and criticising some policies of the government. He was asked to inform the government whether he had taken permission to be part of TV shows that were often critical of the state administration.

Government college teachers are required to take official permission to appear in TV shows, but only once. Sarkar had taken permission in June 2005, when he was the secretary of the higher secondary council.