Kolkata: A district court in South 24-Parganas has discharged Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra from the case that the police had filed against him over 10 years ago for circulating a cartoon on West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Mahapatra had earlier approached the Calcutta high court, which had asked him to approach the lower court instead. On September 14, 2021, the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Alipore had discharged him from the case filed under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act on the ground that the Supreme Court had struck down the section in 2015. However, the CJM court did not discharge Mahapatra fully, as it was yet to decide on a fresh plea for adding Indian Penal Code Sections 500 (punishment for defamation) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) against him.
On January 18, the additional session judge of a South 24 Parganas court set aside the CJM’s order, and discharged Mahapatra from the case and the bail bonds.
“That a simple case without any evidence, that too filed under a section that was subsequently struck down by the apex court, took nearly 11 years to be discharged shows the kind of influence the Mamata Banerjee government holds over a section of the lower judicial establishment,” 62-year-old Mahapatra told The Wire.
“Even though the charge sheet was filed against me in July 2012, the trial never started, as the court was yet to decide whether charges should be framed or dropped,” he said.
He added that the case was transferred from one court to another, besides judges hearing the case getting transferred, adding to the delay. For several months, the case diary could not be found in the court premises when the magistrate court was looking for it. “Nevertheless, finally, it’s the triumph of democracy and justice over injustice,” he said.
Mahapatra was arrested on the night of April 12, 2012 for an email containing the cartoon that he had sent on March 23 to members of the housing society in south Kolkata where he lives. The TMC supporter who lodged the police complaint was not a recipient of the email. He lived in the neighbourhood. Mahapatra was first manhandled by TMC supporters inside the compound of his residential complex and later picked up by the police, who allegedly did not allow Mahapatra to inform his family.
The cartoon involved images of Banerjee, her party’s just-sacked railway minister Dinesh Trivedi and Trivedi’s successor, Mukul Roy, who was then one of Banerjee’s closest confidantes. It used dialogues from the famous Satyajit Ray film, Sonar Kella, to make fun of the party.
Mahapatra’s arrest had triggered a political controversy and several civil society personalities and human rights activists had condemned the harassment. The chief minister, however, had described the cartoon as ‘character assassination’.
In 2013, Mahapatra became one of the parties in the Supreme Court case challenging the validity of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. The charge sheet against him was filed solely under that section. His case was also cited during arguments in the apex court. However, even after the historic Supreme Court verdict, Mahapatra’s pain continued, as lower courts could not decide whether fresh IPC sections could be added against him.
Interestingly, these two IPC sections were in the original FIR lodged by a Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporter at Purba Jadavpur police station in 2012 but the police had dropped these sections in the charge sheet after finding no evidence. In 2016, as Mahapatra approached the court for discharging him, citing the Supreme Court order, the original complainant filed a petition challenging the police’s decision to drop the two IPC sections in the charge sheet. That petition remained undecided.
Meanwhile, the Rs 50,000 compensation that the state human rights commission (SHRC) had awarded him for the harassment he faced at the hands of the police has remained elusive. Mahapatra had approached the Calcutta high court against the state government’s refusal to accept the SHRC’s order, which included action against cops involved in the harassment and compensation to Mahapatra and his neighbour, Subrata Sengupta, who too was arrested.
In 2015, Justice Dipankar Dutta upheld the SHRC order. However, the government challenged the decision before a division bench soon after. In March 2020, the division bench declared the case ‘dismissed by default’ after the state government did not appear on multiple occasions. Despite this dismissal, the single bench order was not obeyed. In October 2021, Mahapatra filed a contempt of court case against the state government in the high court. Meanwhile, Sengupta died in 2019.
“As the government did not implement the single bench order despite their appeal before the division bench being dismissed, I filed a contempt of court petition. It was heard in October 2021, following which it was registered and a case number given. However, there has been no more progress in that since then,” Mahapatra said.
Mahapatra says he is tired of fighting the state administration and the ruling party, besides having to spend thousands of rupees for his legal fight, but would not leave the battle unfinished. “I’ll keep fighting as much as I can. This battle is for justice and to make the government pay for their wrongs,” he said.
Featured image: Ambikesh Mahapatra. Photo: Twitter
This article was first published on The Wire.