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Ambikesh is happy, hopes cops will reform

Ambikesh Mahapatra

Calcutta, March 24: The Jadavpur University professor whose plight made Section 66A a household name in Bengal today declared himself "extremely happy" at the Supreme Court verdict outlawing the provision.

Ambikesh Mahapatra had been beaten up and arrested for circulating an Internet joke featuring chief minister Mamata Banerjee in mid-April 2012, becoming perhaps the first victim of the law's misuse to make national news.

"I'm extremely happy at the verdict, which will protect freedom of speech and people's democratic and human rights," the chemistry professor said.

Mahapatra had received the good news in a text message around 10.45am while taking an MSc class at the Ramakrishna Mission Residential College, Narendrapur, on Calcutta's southern fringes.

But he sounded a caution. "Even if Section 66A is scrapped, people will not be able to enjoy their freedom of speech if the police and the government do not change their mindsets," he said.

"It's extremely important that the police change their ways."

The police had filed a chargesheet against Mahapatra and his septuagenarian neighbour Subrata Sengupta, who was arrested with him, citing Section 66A.

Mahapatra demanded that following today's verdict, the Bengal government should accept the state human rights commission's recommendation to compensate him and Sengupta - a recommendation upheld by a Calcutta High Court judge.

In August 2012, the rights commission had asked the state to pay the duo Rs 50,000 each for the "harassment" they had faced. It had also recommended departmental proceedings against the two officers of East Jadavpur police station who had arrested them.

The state government is said to be considering an appeal to a high court division bench against Justice Dipankar Datta's verdict upholding the rights panel's recommendations.

Case status

Asked what impact the Supreme Court order might have on the criminal proceedings against Mahapatra, senior advocate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya said the case would become "worthless" because it is based solely on Section 66A.

Calcutta police's joint commissioner (crime), Pallab Kanti Ghosh, said: "We are yet to receive the order sheet. Depending on the order sheet, we would do the needful for future cases."

He added: "But the fates of cases in which chargesheets have been submitted, and cases that are pending with the courts, would be decided by the courts themselves."

Might the apex court order change the state's stand on the rights panel's recommendations? The reaction of a senior home department official suggested this was unlikely.

"The scrapping of a penal section and acceptance of the high court's observations are two different issues," the official said.

The offence

Mahapatra had forwarded an already popular Internet joke to a few members of his housing society.

It contained three lines based loosely on dialogues in Satyajit Ray's 1974 film Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which is about a six-year-old boy, Mukul, who appears to remember scenes from his past life in a medieval fort he describes as "Sonar Kella".

The first line in the joke, attributed to Mamata, goes: " Dekhte pachchho Mukul, Sonar Kella (Can you see it Mukul, the Golden Fortress)?"

The "Mukul" in the joke is the then Trinamul all-India general secretary and Mamata aide Mukul Roy.

Mamata seems to be referring to the railway ministry as the Golden Fortress, ostensibly as a way of luring Roy. Mamata had just weeks ago forced party colleague Dinesh Trivedi out of the ministry and replaced him with Roy - the cartoon seems to be alluding to the time of the switch.

Second line: " Ota dushtu lok (That's a wicked man)."

Attributed to Roy, this seems to refer to Trivedi, who had angered Mamata by raising fares.

Third line: " Dushtu lok? Vanish (Wicked man? Vanish)!" The allusion seems to be to Trivedi's removal.

Mahapatra was assaulted by Trinamul workers and then arrested past midnight on the basis of a complaint by his assaulters. Arrested with him was Sengupta, secretary of the housing society, whose email account Mahapatra had used to forward the joke.

They obtained bail from court almost 18 hours later after spending the night in a police lockup. They were charged under penal code Sections 500 (defamation against President/Vice-President, administrator or minister), 509 (word or gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman) and 114 (abetment), and Section 66A of the IT Act (offensive posts).

The police failed to establish most of the charges and only one remained on the final chargesheet: Section 66A.

At the beginning of 2014, the apex court had accepted an application from Mahapatra to become a party to the public interest plea challenging the constitutional validity of Section 66A.

1999 parallel

In 1999, then chief minister Jyoti Basu had ordered the arrest of south Calcutta resident Shamik Khemka for setting up a website, with a Bengali expletive as its name, that criticised him and his son and carried adverse comments about Bengalis.

The then 25-year-old computer professional was charged under several sections of the penal code, including the non-bailable Section 153A, which deals with "promoting enmity between different groups".

Khemka spent about 35 days in jail custody before getting bail. The trauma prompted him and his family to leave Bengal. Today, senior officers could not recall the current status of the case.


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