Under Didi, Bengal gets a controversy a day (West Bengal Newsletter)

Kolkata, April 15: An issue a day keeps boredom at bay – this could well be the guiding principle of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee these days. How else does one explain her government regularly dishing out controversies on a platter to her political opponents?

The baton charging of women protesting eviction from a slum by male police, the arrest of those agitating against the assault, muscle flexing by ruling Trinamool Congress men vis-a-vis a small but feisty human rights group close to Banerjee’s Kalighat residence – the unending chain of events in a short span of time has triggered much condemnation from across society.

But the midnight arrest Thursday of a Jadavpur University professor and a septuagenarian retired engineer – who had to spend 16 hours in a police station – in connection with the online circulation of a cartoon strip which the authorities saw as defaming Banerjee, or ‘Didi’ as she is popularly known, was the icing on the cake.

The collage of cartoons allegedly forwarded by physical chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra included the photographs of Banerjee and Railway Minister Mukul Roy and used some dialogues of filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Bengali detective masterpiece “Sonar Kella” .

It showed the two Trinamool leaders discussing how to get rid of party leader Dinesh Trivedi, who was forced by the chief minister to give up the railways portfolio.

Subrata Sengupta, a former Public Works Department engineer, was taken into custody as Mahapatra had sent the cartoons from the registered e-mail id of the housing cooperative of which Sengupta was secretary. The mail account had been opened in Sengupta’s name.

But what was more laughable were the charges. The duo was booked for outraging the modesty of a woman – punishable with one year imprisonment, defamation which carries a maximum term of two years and hacking, punishable with three years of prison and a fine of up to Rs.2 lakh.

“I liked the cartoon strip. It was extremely witty and pure fun. I didn’t find anything vulgar in it,” said author and Sahitya Academy chairman Sunil Gangopadhyay, as the collage was repeatedly aired by national and local television channels.

It was displayed in university campuses as a means of protest by students, became a hot topic on Twitter and Facebook and was widely published in the print media Saturday.

Civil society, including many pro-Mamata intellectuals, was up in arms, besides all political parties, save the Trinamool. Rebel Trinamool MP Kabir Suman also joined the protests.

Though the professor and the retired engineer got bail from the court, there was a distinct similarity in the modus operandi in their case as also that involving the attack on the human rights group.

The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) activists, intending to take out a pre-announced procession, were first roughed up by youths allegedly close to the Trinamool Congress. Within minutes, police, instead of taking action against the culprits, arrested the APDR people.

Mahapatra was also first allegedly beaten up by Trinamool men Thursday night, and forced to write out a signed statement that he had circulated the cartoon “motivatedly” as he was a Communist Party of India-Marxist activist. And then police swung into action based on a complaint by someone who does not even have an e-mail account to take the professor and the retired, ailing engineer into custody.

After their release, Mahapatra filed a counter complaint, and buckling under the storm of protests, four of the youths were arrested. But they were bailed out within hours.

Actor Kaushik Sen said: “I could not suppress my smile when I heard about the issue. But at the same time this is not a laughing matter. If somebody draws a cartoon he has to be arrested? I feel concerned. May be, later our plays will be stopped and our houses attacked.”

Now there is a fresh angle to the story. It has been reported that those who attacked Mahapatra were members of a building material suppliers’ syndicate with links to the Trinamool. It is being said that bills worth Rs.17 lakh submitted by suppliers were being witheld by the housing society which doubted how genuine these were. Mahapatra is assistant secretary of the cooperative.

Meanwhile Banerjee appears unfazed.

While the chief minister defended the arrests, a source close to her said: “This will not have any impact on her support base, as very few people are bothered with Facebook and Twitter. Only a cross section of people in Kolkata are creating a ruckus over this.”

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at s.panth@ians.in)

IANS