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- Published 18.07.99
Dangerous Precedent On Friday last Mr Shamit Khemka, the host of a hate site on the internet, was refused bail for the fourth time. This in itself is cause for worry, since all Mr Khemka is accused of is hosting a site that abused Bengalis. But the passions he has aroused are alarming in the degree of insecurity among Bengalis they have exposed. There are other, allied, causes for alarm. The last plea for bail has been rejected by the Calcutta high court. With due respect to the court?s wisdom, the interested ? and internet literate ? layman may wonder how long Mr Khemka?s penance in custody will continue. What is he expiating? It is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint responsibility for abusive remarks posted on the net. It follows therefore, that the host of a site is always vulnerable. And if it is a hate site, a charge of defamation, a bailable offence, would not be enough. Mr Khemka, arrested on June 22, was also charged with inciting disharmony between communities, which is non-bailable. So he is still under lock and key while the powers that be search high and low for evidence to convict someone who dared to encourage insults against the dominant community. For any resident of the state, Bengali or otherwise, the implications of this sequence are ominous. To hold somebody in custody for days on the charge of inciting disharmony between communities should surely result from some graver offence than hosting a hate site. Such a provision, important in times of sectarian unrest, should be invoked with the greatest of caution. Its invocation in Mr Khemka?s case means the state has in its hands a dangerous weapon which it is free to wield every time an individual derides Bengalis. Here the role of the judiciary could have been crucial. Unfortunately the lower court and the high court seem to be of the same mind. It might be recalled that those charged with inciting the destruction of Babri Masjid, the most serious episode of communal disharmony in recent times, were let free on bail. It can be inferred therefore that the court can exercise discretion in its rulings on non-bailable offences. Perhaps Mr Khemka?s offence is more serious than the Babri Masjid destruction. The issue of cultural chauvinism is bound to raise its ugly head in this context. The first time Mr Khemka?s plea came up in the high court the judge referred it to the chief justice because he did not wish to rule on the ?controversial? case. Reportedly, a lawyer, professedly representing Amra Bangali, silenced everyone with his loud demands that Mr Khemka be kept in jail for insulting Bengalis. There is no report of this lawyer being charged with contempt of court. Such spectacles may prompt people to think that the law is not as impersonal as it is reputed to be. This would be confirmed by the connection with cultural chauvinism provided by the state itself. The state home (police) minister, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, who also holds the information and cultural affairs portfolio, has declared war on the destroyers of Bengali culture. Hate sites and satellite television are, in Mr Bhattacharya?s eyes, equally villainous in this respect. He plans to ask computer experts to help him control hate sites. He might find to his chagrin that the net is a slippery villain, not amenable to chauvinistic control. He also has plans for a private television channel which will ?preserve? Bengali culture. A culture so fragile as to turn hysterical with attacks from a hate site is certainly in need of preservation. Mr Bhattacharya?s approach underlines the fitness of his combination of portfolios. What does not fit is his decision to police the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for carrying out conversions to Hinduism. The VHP?s aim is no different in principle from Mr Bhattacharya?s. It is time the people of West Bengal realized that Mr Khemka?s situation is setting a precedent which endangers the democratic rights and freedoms of every individual.