Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, 62, was at the centre of a legal battle for nearly 10 years after being booked in 2012 for allegedly forwarding defamatory cartoons of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mukul Roy. On January 18, he was acquitted by the Alipore District Court.
The court’s order said that the discharge petition “by the accused petitioner Ambikesh Mahapatra is allowed” and that “the bail bonds are discharged accordingly”.
On April 12, 2012, Mahapatra shared a cartoon sequence based on Satyajit Ray’s film Sonar Kella after Dinesh Trivedi was replaced by Roy as the Union railways minister at the time. Based on a complaint lodged at East Jadavpur police station, Mahapatra was arrested the same day. He went on to seek exemption from the Alipore Chief Judicial Magistrate Court on September 14 that year.
Talking to The Indian Express after his acquittal, Mahapatra said, “Of course I am happy to be out of all this. But who will give me back these years? The case was dragged on intentionally for such a long time without any merit.”
Saying that he “had forwarded a collage cartoon with few pictures and dialogues”, Mahapatra added: “In 2012, the then railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi had presented a rail budget and CM Mamata Banerjee did not agree with a few points. Manmohan Singh was then the Prime Minister. She put pressure on him and Mukul Roy was made the railway minister.”
“It was an unprecedented incident. A railway budget was presented by one person and by the time it was passed in Parliament, the railway minister was changed. Mukul Roy was made the new minister. Naturally, it was a talking point and the cartoon was about that,” Mahapatra claimed.
Saying that he “got the cartoon from someone”, Mahapatra added that he had forwarded the same to his group of friends on group email.
Speaking of the night of his arrest, Mahapatra alleged, “It was a planned move. About 60 to 70 TMC miscreants had gathered at our housing cooperative office of which I was the assistant secretary. As per my usual routine, I used to return from Jadavpur University and would sit in the office. That day, they had gathered in the office. Due to some extra classes, I got late. They were waiting for me since 7 pm. They saw me walking and blocked my way.”
He added: “They forcefully took me to my office. They showed me a printed copy of the cartoon and asked if I had shared it with some people on email. When I said yes, they started beating me. I was assaulted. I was kicked and slapped. I was shivering with fear and surrounded by people. I can never forget the night…I begged, cried, and was feeling helpless.”
Mahapatra claimed he was given “an office pad” and asked to write that he “forwarded or shared the cartoon in a planned manner”.
“I was asked to write that I was a CPI(M) worker. It was not true, so I refused, but I had to eventually give up. I wrote whatever they said on an office pad. After that they took me and my office secretary Subrata Sengupta to a police station. Several bikes followed the police van and we were soon given an arrest memo,” he added. Mahapatra would go on to contest in the 2016 Assembly election from the Behala East constituency as an Independent candidate supported by the CPI(M)-led left front.
Mahapatra also alleged that the “time, place and witness on the arrest memo were false”.
“We were arrested at 10:30 pm on April 12th, but, on the memo, they showed 12:30 am on April 13. I was arrested from the housing cooperative office. They showed my home as the place of arrest and also wrote my wife’s name as witness. I objected to signing the memo but eventually had to,” he said.
At the time of arrest, Sengupta, a retired government engineer, was 73. “Sengupta also had to stay in the lockup for a night,” said Mahapatra. On April 13, they were both produced before the Alipore Criminal Court and released on bail amid protests by the TMC government and the police opposing the bail petition.
Mahapatra was booked under sections 66A (b) and (c) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. In 2015, however, the Supreme Court struck down section 66A of the IT Act in the Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India case, calling it unconstitutional. Following this, the section 66A of the IT Act against Mahapatra was dropped. But the case dragged on till 2021.
“How much money and financial loss I have suffered from the incident is not important as it is in lakhs. However, many NGOs and people have helped me, providing me financial assistance in the process. But the time I have wasted and the harrassment I faced cannot be measured,” he added.
Taking to Facebook after the case was quashed, he said, “It can be described as a democratic day. The essence of the Indian Constitution is democracy. In 2011, the Maa-Mati-Manush (a TMC slogan popularised by Banerjee) government took an oath in the name of the Constitution and decided that no free expression which is critical towards the government and the ruling party would be allowed. The joint forces of the police administration, the ruling party and the criminals supported by the ruling party were given the responsibility to implement that decision. That force swung into action to enforce it across the state.”
Added the professor, “A prime example was my case. Physical abuse, death threats, bail, calling the police and arresting me, arranging overnight stay in the police station lock-up, filing criminal cases in the Alipore Criminal Court, charge sheets, additional harassment, dates after dates and what not. In this way, I have passed 11 years! Ultimately, the intervention of the district court is going to lead to the exoneration of the criminal case. This is the victory of the fight to protect democracy and civil rights in the unequivocal fight against state conspiracy.”
The Opposition, which has turned up the heat on the TMC on the issue over the years, has left no opportunity to hit out at the TMC after Mahapatra’s release.
CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said, “The TMC government doesn’t believe in democracy. They want people to walk with their heads down. The TMC doesn’t believe in human rights.”
Demanding an apology from the CM, BJP leader Rahul Sinha said, “I believe it’s the victory of democracy. Mamata Banerjee should apologise to the public.”
The TMC, however, claimed that the case was fought legally and said the party had nothing to do with it.
“We know very well that he has political affiliations and even contested elections. The government has nothing to do with this incident. This is proof of how slow our judicial system is. If you have freedom of speech, does that mean you can make anyone’s cartoon? Whether a reasonable restriction should be there or not when we talk of freedom of speech is a serious subject of discussion,” senior TMC leader and MP Saugata Roy told the media.