The Dangers of Merely Forwarding a Collage Cartoon in West Bengal, India


Regularly followers of our postings by now are well aware that Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has been named one of the 2012 recipients of CRNI’s Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award, along with Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.  What many readers may not know is just how vulnerable free speech rights are in India, the world’s largest democracy.  In the weeks leading up to the CRNI Courage Award ceremony to be held on September 15th in Washington, DC, we will be posting recent stories of attempts to silence the political speech in Indian editorial cartoons.  Our first story is about a chemistry professor named Dr. Ambikesh Mahapatra who was beaten up and then charged with crimes for merely forwarding a very tame editorial collage cartoon via email.  He was even accused by Mamata Banerjee the Chief Minister of West Bengal of conspiring with Venezuelans, Hungarians, Marxists, Maoists, North Koreans and Pakistan’s intelligence agency to murder the Chief Minister.

On March 23, 2012, Professor Mahapatra of Jadavpur University forwarded an email containing a collage cartoon to the approximately sixty-five resident members of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society.  Professor Mahapatra, a resident and the Assistant Secretary of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society, sent the batch mail using the email ID enrolled in the name of the Secretary, Mr. Subrata Sengupta.  Mr. Sengupta, it should be noted, had assigned Assistant Secretary Mahapatra the responsibility of sending emails of the Housing Cooperative Society.  

On April 3, 2012, one of the resident members objected to Professor Mahapatra’s email by sending back an email in “reply all” mode.  The offended resident member wrote, “Such a joke is not expected from the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of a renowned Society like ours.  Specially using our Societies Website and official mailbox.”

Professor Mahapatra told us that he was surprised.  He had not intended to offend anyone and it had never occurred to him that sending a mild joke would lead to such a reaction.  He thought about it and then on April 4, 2012, and then again on April 6, 2012, Assistant Secretary Mahapatra emailed an apology to all the residents.  He wrote, “Dear Member, I had forwarded a message of joke (which I had received from my Colleague) as an e-mail attachment to you on 23/03/2012 using our Society’s official e-mail address.  Undoubtedly, it was a serious mistake on my part to use Society’s official e-mail address to forward a joke.  I am very sorry and apologize for that type of mistake.  I shall take a lesson from this mistake.  Please ignore this e-mail. Thanks & Regard, Ambikesh Mahapatra on behalf of Subrata Sengupta, Secretary, New Garia Dev. Co-op, Housing Soc. Ltd.”

Unfortunately Professor Mahapatra’s troubles did not end with an apology to the members of his Housing Cooperative Society.  But before we continue with Professor Mahapatra’s troubles, let’s take a look at this allegedly offensive collage cartoon.

This cartoon, shown above, was not created by Professor Mahapatra and had been in circulation on the Internet for at least a couple of weeks before being forwarded to the Professor.  The cartoon is called a collage cartoon because it is a collection of word bubbles and photographs.  The “cartoonist” hasn’t drawn anything.  He, or she, though has combined some commentary with photographs of political figures to make a funny, political point.  The image is therefore a cartoon of sorts despite the lack of a drawing.   

Expertly employing dialogue from Satyajit Ray’s 1971 novel and 1974 film Sonar Kella (or Golden Fortress), the collage cartoon depicts West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her future Railway Minister Mukul Roy discussing their plans to oust Dinesh Trivedi as Railway Minister. (Dinesh Trivedi is, by the way, no relation to Courage Award winner Aseem Trivedi).  The Chief Minister was convinced that Dinesh Trivedi had become a political liability for suggesting the raising of the railway’s fare as one possible way, among others, of making up a significant budget shortfall.  In the first line the Chief Minister, referring to the Railways Ministry, says, “Can you see it Mukul, the Golden Fortress?”  Mukul is also the name of the six-year-old protagonist of the novel and film.  In the novel and film this child has vivid dreams of a former life in the Golden Fortress which was filled with precious stones.  A con man tricks the child into leading him to the Golden Fortress in the hopes of finding hidden treasure.  In the second line of the cartoon, Mukul Roy who seeks the position of Railway Minister says of Trivedi, “That’s a wicked man.”  In Sonar Kella the con man says this about another man who also doesn’t deserve to be so harshly labeled.  In the third line, obviously referring to Trivedi, Chief Minister Banerjee says, “Vanish!  Wicked Man?  Vanish!”

Dinesh Trivedi may have vanished, at least politically, but sensitivity over this cartoon did not, even after the Professor apologized.  On April 12, 2012, a mob headed and lead by Trinamool Congress Party Members, some of whom Professor Mahapatra recognized as residents of the neighboring area outside the Housing Cooperative Society, roughed up Secretary Sengupta and Assistant Secretary Mahapatra.  They marched the men back to Secretary Sengupta’s office.  The mob then forced Professor Mahapatra to sign a confession in which he had to admit, falsely, that he was an active worker of the Communist Party of India-Marxist [CPI(M) or CPM] in addition to admitting that he had intentionally forwarded anti-Banerjee cartoons.  Professor Mahapatra was also forced to write and sign a letter of resignation as the Assistant Secretary of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society.

In the meantime, someone called the police about the disturbance.  Instead of arresting the members of the mob for forcibly detaining and assaulting Mr. Sengupta and Professor Mahapatra, the Purba Jadavpur Police hauled off to jail Mr. Sengupta and Professor Mahapatra.  On April 13, 2012, Professor Mahapatra and Mr. Sengupta were arrested at approximately 12:40 a.m.  They were charged with outraging the modesty of a woman, defamation and using the Internet to defame another based on a complaint filed by one of the assailants, Mr. Amit Sardar. 

Amit Sardar is not a member of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society and therefore did not receive an email directly from Professor Mahapatra.  Furthermore, Mr. Sardar is not featured or even mentioned in the cartoon.  So what is Mr. Sardar’s interest in this cartoon?  Amit Sardar is a leader in the Trinamool Congress Party, the same party headed by Chief Minister Banerjee.

The specific crimes Ambikesh and Subrata are charged with are Section 509 of the IPC or Indian Penal Code (work gesture or act insulting the modesty of a woman), Section 500 of the IPC (defamation), Section 66 (b) of the Information Technology or IT Act (causing offense using a computer), and, Section 114 of the IPC (abettor present when offence is committed).  The two men were not immediately informed that these offenses are bailable offenses.  Consequently the fifty-two-year-old Assistant Secretary, Professor Mahapatra, and the seventy-two-year-old Secretary, Mr. Sengupta, spent nearly sixteen hours in custody before finally being released on bail late the next day. 

Ambikesh’s and Subrata's assailants did not receive the same treatment from the police.  The four assailants that the Professor could name were not even arrested until the next day and only at Professor Mahapatra’s insistence.  Once taken into custody the assailants were immediately processed and released within two and a half hours.    

Photograph, by Sushanta Patronobish of Professor Mahapatra (in the center) protesting with Jadavpur University students and other professors, courtesy of The Hindu

Once public, Professor Mahapatra’s and Mr. Sengupta’s experience of mob attack and police misconduct shocked and outraged many freedom loving Indians.  Within twenty-four hours of the arrests, students of Jadavpur University protested the arrests and bravely put up posters of the cartoon all around campus.  Cartoonists at the Kerala Cartoon Academy likewise launched a protest within twenty-four hours.  That protest can be seen at the Mamata Banerjee Online Cartoon Exhibition.  

Cartoon courtesy of Surendra and The Hindu

Prominent figures also spoke out.  Markandey Katjul, the Chairman of the Press Council of India in a speech before the Indian Women’s Press Corps said, “I think Mamata Banerjee should have behaved in a more mature manner.  She is no more a street fighter; she is the chief minister… [N]ow she is no longer in Opposition.  She must learn some democratic way of functioning. … What’s wrong if somebody publishes a cartoon?”  Novelist and literary critic Chandrahas Choudhury submitted a beautifully written opinion piece for Bloomberg News titled Paranoia Leads to Jailing for Cartoon in India.  In that April 17th article Choudhury points out that government “should exercise extreme self-restraint in depriving human beings of their liberty, and in particular never use the state’s power to settle personal scores.  All these foundational axioms of democratic civility and integrity were thrown to the wind last week by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, and her party, the Trinamool Congress, when they swooped down upon and incarcerated a University Professor for the earthshaking crime of circulating an e-mail that contained a cartoon mocking Banerjee and two members of her party.”  In the meantime, a group of international activists including Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, and Noam Chomsky along with renowned scientists, including Partha Sarathi Ray, wrote a letter of protest to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.  Even prominent figures within Trinamool Congress’ ally the National Congress, like Pradesh Congress President Pradip Bhattacharya, condemned the incident. 

Chief Minister Banerjee, however, defended the arrests of Professor Mahapatra and Mr. Sengupta.  At an event in Durgapur less than twenty-four hours after the arrests, she said, “If someone commits some mischief, what will the police do?  Will they not arrest him?  And then the CPI(M)’s two news channels and some of the newspapers will start a slander campaign against us.” 

A little less than four weeks later on May 11, 2012, Chief Minister Banerjee’s conspiracy theory went from bizarre to ludicrous.  She said the use of word 'vanish' in the cartoon implied a conspiracy to murder her.  To put it mildly, that’s a unique interpretation of the cartoon especially given the fact that the one saying the word 'vanish' in the cartoon is Mamata Banerjee.  After calling the forwarding of the cartoon a cyber crime and part of a conspiracy to kill her, she also incredulously said at the same function, “Since we are decent and tolerant, we don't target people who are opposed to us.”

That’s a difficult statement to believe.  Immediately after the Chief Minister’s first public statement on the incident not only did the Chief Minister’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) request that Facebook remove from the social networking site other pictures lampooning the Chief Minister, but Banerjee’s CID also requested that Facebook turn over the IP address of the computers from where the pictures were uploaded.

Just a week later on a nationally televised town hall meeting talk show which was filmed in Kolkata, the Chief Minister repeated the very serious and seriously strange allegation that Professor Mahapatra was part of a conspiracy to kill her.  On the IBN/CNN show dubbed “Question Time Didi”, the Chief Minister when asked about the cartoon said, “It was not a cartoon.  We are talking about decomposed (sic) (Presumably she meant superimposed.) photos with ‘vanish’ written on me.  It was a plot by CPM and Maoists to kill me. … Now this man he was a CPM agent.  It’s a political conspiracy to murder me.”  Less than fifteen minutes into the program, the Chief Minister accused members of the audience of being Maoists and then she stormed off the stage despite moderator Sagarika Ghose’s attempts to convince her to stay.  What set off the Chief Minister were tough but fair questions from the audience of students and educators. 

Later that month when Simon Denyer of The Washington Post asked the Chief Minister about the controversy, to quote Denyer from his May 20, 2012 article titled Mamata Banerjee Personifies Populist Force in Indian Politics, “Banerjee launched into a tirade about how her Marxist political opponents were plotting with Maoist rebels to discredit and kill her, in league with Pakistani intelligence and financed by North Korea, Venezuela and Hungary.  ‘They have given me the death sentence, and every day they are spreading this superimposed photo, on Facebook, on Internet or in the e-mail, through some false, camouflaged name.’”  Given how strangely the Chief Minister perceives anything critical of her, and, given how Banerjee and her officers treat individuals who merely forward the cartoon, it is hardly surprising that the cartoon’s creator seems intent on remaining anonymous. 

In retrospect the Chief Minister’s reaction to this tame cartoon is hardly surprising; it fits a pattern.  In March the Banerjee government banned English and mass-circulation Bengali dailies at state-sponsored libraries.  It just so happened that all the approved papers are, or at least were, supportive of the Banerjee regime.  One of the papers is even owned by a Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament and edited by another.  However, after a public outcry, five banned papers including The Times of India, were restored to the government approved list.  In a television interview Chief Minister Banerjee later said, “We are not telling people what to read.  But the manner in which personal attacks are being made – a conspiracy is being staged – we may just have to take the decision of telling people what to read.”  In April, Banerjee advised West Bengalis to listen to music and watch entertainment television channels, instead of certain news channels she claimed are sponsored by the CPI(M).  On August 8th, Banerjee, after giving a speech and then asking if there were any questions, had farmer Shiladitya Chowdhury arrested for asking, "What are you doing for farmers?  Farmers are dying because they have no money.  Empty promises are not enough."  Of course before Mamata ordered the police to arrest the farmer, she angrily accused him of being a Maoist. 

In India accusing someone of being a Maoist is a very serious allegation.  India has endured homegrown Maoist terrorist attacks.  Making such a serious allegation is also, unfortunately, a convenient ploy to discredit one's critics. 

Mamata Banerjee came to office after thirty-four years of Left Front rule.  She promised 'poriborton' or 'change' in Bengal.  While it may be true that the new Chief Minister is simply employing tactics that her opponents have long employed, Mamata Banerjee had an opportunity to bring about real and lasting change in the political culture of West Bengal.  If her treatment of Professor Mahapatra is any indication, Banerjee’s promise of poriborton was nothing but an insincere campaign promise. 

One thing that fortunately hasn't changed over the past year – Mamata Banerjee's first year as the Chief Minister – is the press' interest in this story.  To learn more about the incident and the Chief Minister's first year in office, click on Professor earns Mamata's wrath, held, by Shiv Sahay Singh for The Hindu, Exercise restraint: Katju to Mamata from The Indian Express , Who is Mamata Banerjee? from NDTV, Mamata Targets Media Again: Asks People to Stop Watching News Channels by Manoj Kumar for the India Edition of the International Business Times, Politically incorrect by Kusum Kanojia for the Deccan Herald, 'Real frustration' vs Mamata Banerjee trends on virtual world by Piyasree Dasgupta for The Indian Express, Didi sees 'reds' in TV audience, sends police after them from the Hindustan Times, and, Cartoon row: Mamata calls students Maoists, storms out of live talkshow from The Times of India.  To learn more about the reaction of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, stay tuned for a follow-up article.