South Asia

 “In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

-Eric Hoffer


Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta - kidnapped, assaulted, charged with crimes for emailing an innocuous editorial collage cartoon, 2012

Summary of incident:

On April 12, 2012, a mob in West Bengal, India kidnapped and assaulted chemistry professor and Assistant Secretary of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society, Ambikesh Mahapatra, and, retired engineer Subrata Sengupta, the Secretary of that society.  The mob, led by Trinamool Congress Party Members, had taken offense to a collage cartoon mildly poking fun of Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal.  When the police arrived to investigate the disturbance, Ambikesh and Subrata – not the assailants – were arrested.  Ambikesh and Subrata 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.  The charges are still pending.         

Details of incident:

On March 23, 2012, chemistry professor Ambikesh 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 in West Bengal, India.  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.

On April 4, 2012, and then again on April 6, 2012, Assistant Secretary Mahapatra emailed an apology to all the residents after one of the residents complained about receiving a cartoon in an official Cooperative Society email.  Ambikesh 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.”

On April 12, 2012, a mob headed and led 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 cartoons critical of Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal.  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, Ambikesh and Subrata 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.  His only interest in the matter is through party affiliation.  He is a leader in the Trinamool Congress Party, the same party headed by Chief Minister Banerjee, a politician who is very mildly poked fun of in the cartoon.

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, Ambikesh Mahapatra, and the seventy-two-year-old Secretary, Subrata 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 only arrested the following day at Professor Mahapatra’s insistence.  Once taken into custody the assailants were immediately processed and released within two and a half hours.   

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 identity of the cartoon’s creator is unknown.  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.  The Chief Minister was convinced that Dinesh Trivedi had become a political liability for suggesting the raising of railway fares 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!”

Chief Minister Banerjee 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?” A little less than four weeks later on May 11, 2012, Chief Minister Banerjee even went so far as to claim that 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.

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 said, “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.”  Before storming off the stage less than fifteen minutes into the program, she also accused members of the audience of being Maoists.

Later that month Mamata Banerjee repeated her conspiracy theory to Simon Denyer of the Washington Post.  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.

The powerful Chief Minister didn’t stop with just wild accusations.  Immediately after her 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.

On August 13, 2012, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), after conducting a nearly three month investigation initiated suo motu (at its own motion or initiative), issued a stinging rebuke to the police officers of Purba Jadavpur Police Station on the southern fringe of Kolkata.   The WBHRC characterized the officers’ treatment in April of Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, as a “case of police excess and highhandedness.”  In its advisory opinion the WBHRC recommended departmental proceedings against the two arresting officers.  The WBHRC also ordered the West Bengal government to pay both Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra and Mr. Subrata Sengupta each Rs. 50,000 (approximately $900).   The WBHRC advisory opinion states, “The government must compensate Mahapatra and Sengupta for the manner in which they were arrested from their residential complex and detained” in the police lockup of the police station.

While not having the authority to dismiss the charges against them, the WBHRC in very clear and powerful prose warned what a conviction of these men would mean for all Indians.  To quote that opinion, "Citizens who are airing critical opinions about the ruling party cannot be picked up from their residence by the police at the instance of an agitated mob whose members are unhappy with the critical views of those two persons.  If this is allowed to continue then not only the human rights of the dissenters will perish, free speech, which is the life blood of democracy, will also be gagged.  Constitutional provisions will be reduced to parchment promises and we will be headed towards a totalitarian regime in complete negation of democratic values in the largest democracy of the world."

To date the charges against chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra and retired engineer Subrata Sengupta have not been dismissed.  Furthermore, to date no actions have been taken to carry out the ruling of the WBHRC.  Ambikesh and Subrata have not been compensated and the arresting officers have not been disciplined.   

Actions taken by CRNI:

CRNI has regularly communicated with Ambikesh and Subrata, and their counsel, and kept the public informed about their plight.  Additionally, CRNI wrote a joint action letter calling on charges against Ambikesh and Subrata to be dropped.  This public letter is addressed to Prime Minister Singh and President Shri Pranab Mukherjee. Thirty IFEX affiliated human rights organizations, and three prominent cartooning organizations, the Cartoon Movement, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists have signed this letter in support of Ambikesh’s and Subrata’s free speech rights.

Sri Lanka

Jiffry Yoonoos - beaten, stabbed, his house ransacked, family threatened and traumatized, 1992

Summary of incident:

In 1992 Jiffry Yoonoos drew a series of political cartoons critical of then President Ranasinghe Primadas.  In August of that year he was visited by a team of thugs.  Jiffry was beaten and stabbed, his house was ransacked, and his family was terrorized.  Jiffry was threatened with death if he continued to draw cartoons critical of the President.  After receiving medical attention to his wounds, Jiffry sent his wife and children into hiding.  Meanwhile, Jiffry moved out of his home and into the copy room of his newspaper, Aththa (The Truth).  Despite the fact that Jiffry identified his assailants by taking down the license plate of their vehicle as they left the scene of the assault, not one of the assailants was ever held to account.


Details of incident:

In 1992, editorial cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos was working for Aththa (The Truth), Sri Lanka's last communist newspaper to survive changes in the political and economic atmosphere.  Jiffry was one of the few cartoonists who dared to criticize President Premadasa during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period of civil instability and governmental repression.  Despite a "friendly warning" from a political enforcer close to the President, Jiffry refused to be intimidated and continued to draw outspoken cartoons. 

After the publishing of the above cartoon, and others, showing Premadasa in a bad light, came a knock on Jiffry's door.  Jiffry was visited by one of the “Goon Squads,” or political assassination units, operating with impunity in the country.  Jiffry was viciously beaten and stabbed in front of his wife and children.  The assailants also ransacked the house and wrecked the family's car.  While the assailants were careful not to kill Jiffry, they told him they would kill him on their next "friendly" visit if he didn’t stop drawing cartoons that embarrass the President.  In spite of his wounds and the trauma of being attacked, Jiffry had the presence of mind to focus on, and write down, the license plate number of his assailants immediately after the attack as they left his house.  Then Jiffry was taken to the hospital where he received treatment for a number of stab wounds and bruises.  After his arm was placed in a sling and he was released from the hospital, Jeffry sent his wife and kids to stay with extended family in another village.  No longer feeling safe in his own home, Jiffry moved into the copy room of his newspaper, Aththa (The Truth).

A few days after the beating Jiffry had the courage to go to the police to report the incident.  The local court issued a bench warrant for the thug who led the group to Jiffry's house.  The man turned out to be one of the more brutal members of the political assassination units.  During this period in Sri Lanka's history few individuals had the courage to challenge these thugs who operated beyond any kind of serious police investigation.  It took an amazing amount of courage for Jiffry to come forward and challenge the man by bringing him to court.  

One neighbor who had witnessed the beating volunteered to testify in court on Jiffry's behalf.  Just before the court date, the neighbor was taken aside and threatened.  He was told that if he gave testimony in court, he would meet the same fate that Jiffry did.  With apologies to Jiffry, the neighbor explained that he had to withdraw his testimony.  In court the thugs openly laughed at Jiffry, knowing that they would be quickly exonerated.  Jiffry's testimony was simply ignored.  To save his own life, and to protect his family, Jiffry finally gave in.  He stopped his series of cartoons against the President.

As noted above, the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a period of civil instability and governmental repression in Sri Lanka.  In 1992, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa (in office from January 2, 1989 to May 1, 1993) was a populist leader trying to develop Sri Lanka’s economy while battling two wars.  One was a civil war pitting Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an ethnic Tamil rebel force trying to establish an independent homeland of its own in Sri Lanka's North and East.  The other was an insurrection that pitted the country's Singhalese youth, calling themselves the JVP, against the government of their fathers. 

Both conflicts were disturbingly bitter.  During the civil war neither the minority Hindu Tamil fighters, nor the majority Buddhist Singhalese Army normally took prisoners.  The insurrection though was even more brutal than the civil war.  Rogue police Death Squads would indiscriminately round up young people, torture them until they revealed the names of other supposed co-conspirators in the insurrection, and then kill their captives once they had given names of other young people.  The captives would be driven to a remote area and then executed by encircling each victim in a rubber tire filled with petrol and setting the victim on fire.  This form of execution, which often took many minutes to kill the victim, is known as necklacing.  The fire would leave nothing but ash and a few teeth.  For their part, the JVP developed a particularly cruel kind of revenge.  They would identify the police unit or police station that had most recently killed their corporal cohorts and choose the identity of one of the police officers in that unit.  They would then find out where the policeman lived, where the majority of his family were hiding in order to protect themselves, and then they would kill every single member of the family from grandparents to infants.  Only the officer would be spared.  In short, the insurrection had a degree of brutality that has been uncommon in the world before or since.  The ghastly conflict ended in the early 1990s, but only after well over 35,000 Singhalese youth were cut down at the hands of the police. 

The above cartoon is Jiffry's depiction of President Premadasa.  Jiffry asks, "Who is this man and what is he doing?"  On the one hand,  Premadasa was often shown on state controlled television giving an offering of flowers in a temple, mosque or church.  On the other hand, many believed that he was behind the deadly and endless slaughter of Sri Lanka’s youth, many of whom met their end being "necklaced."  The below cartoon titled Udagampala's Flashlight is another unflattering depiction of the President.  In this cartoon Udagampala.  a senior police officer who exposed some of the misdeeds of the President, shines a spotlight on President Premadasa. 

In May of 1993, President Premadasa was cut down by an assassin's bomb. The new opposition government recognized Jiffry Yoonoos’ contribution to freedom of the press with the nation's highest award for the arts, the Distinguished Service Gold Medal Award given in grateful appreciation of his artistic services to the country.   His victory was short lived.  In early 1998, Jiffry’s only son was killed in Sri Lanka’s continuing civil war.  Jiffry died penniless and in deteriorating health on August 27, 2003.

Actions taken by CRN (later CRNI):

At the time of Jiffry’s problems CRNI didn’t exist.  Dr. Robert Russell was then working on a development project in Sri Lanka.  When Dr. Russell learned of Jiffry's courageous stand, he asked if Jifffry would meet with him.  Jiffry was at first relunctant.  He was afraid to leave his office and wary of any strangers.  After assuring Jiffry that he meant him no harm, they finally met at Dr. Russell's office.  Jiffry's arm was still in a sling, his head and chest still covered in bandages.  Dr. Russell asked what help he could be to Jiffry.  Dr. Russell was expecting to be asked to write a letter to the American government, President Premadasa or the United Nations, or, to be asked to start a global, letter writing campaign to protest on Jiffry's behalf.  Instead, Jiffry gave Dr. Russell an answer he hadn't expected.  "If they kill me," Jiffry said, "please make sure my children have sandals for their feet when they go to school.  If I am put in the hospital, please make sure I have a doctor who will take care of me."  Over the next few days, Dr. Russell tried to find an organization that was exclusively devoted to the well-being of political cartoonists in trouble.  He found none.  A week later Jiffry and Dr. Russell decided to form a free speech and human rights organization for editorial cartoonists and their families.  They named their organization the Cartoonists Relief Network.  It has grown over the years and changed its name to the Cartoonists Rights Network International, to better express its missionOver the years, CRNI has sent Jiffry's family nearly $2,000  for his medical and legal expenses.  


Prageeth Eknaligoda - abducted and believed murdered, 2010


Summary of incident:

Prageeth Eknaligoda was abducted January 24, 2010, on his way home from work.  He has not been seen or heard of since.

Details of incident:

On the evening of January 24, 2010, at about 8:30 P.M, Prageeth Eknaligoda, an investigative reporter, columnist and occassional cartoonist for the newspaper Lanka E-news, left work in Rajagiriya, a suburb of Colombo.  He never made it home to his wife and two sons.  

Prageeth was an outspoken critic of the current regime.  At the end of 2009, Prageeth wrote some scathing columns about President Rajapaksa and various members of Parliament.   A year earlier Prageeth had been warned by police during an overnight arrest that unfortunate things could happen to him if he continued investigating the government.   

At the time of Prageeth's disappearance, the government of Sri Lanka had just completed a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers who had for fought for independence in a civil war that lasted over 20 years.  Prageeth had written articles on the brutality of the war and what he considered the illegality of that war.  He had also been attempting to verify widespread rumors of summary executions and unprovoked attacks against large civilian Tamil populations.  Prageeth Eknaligoda was one of many Sri Lankan journalists who "disappeared" while trying to uncover eventually verified allegations of war crimes and genocide. 

Immediately after Prageeth's disappearance, Prageeth's wife Sandya went to the local police station to give a missing persons report. She was turned away with the explanation that "these days journalists are disappearing themselves for profit and for public sympathy."  The police officer in charge refused to take her testimony.  So she went to another neighborhood to find a police officer willing to take her statement.  The officers at that police station likewise refused to take down her statement.  At the third station she finally found a police officer in charge who would listen to her and take down her story. 

From the very next day after her husband's disappearance, Sandya  initiated an unrelenting "satyagraha" (peaceful public demonstrations based on Gandhian methods of civil disobedience) to demand accountability for her husband's whereabouts from the government of Sri Lanka.  At great risk to herself she stood in front of government buildings with a placard asking, "Where is Prageeth Eknaligoda?" Her bravery and heartbreaking story have galvanized the human rights and free speech community in Sri Lanka.  Her quest to force the Sri Lankan government to account for the whereabouts and the fate of her husband has also become a popular rallying point for those in opposition to the Rajapaksa government.  With the support of these various groups, she has coordinated public demonstrations on street corners throughout Colombo, has led delegations to the Parliament, and has even addressed committee meetings in Parliament about the disappearance of her husband.  Sandya's pursuit of the truth and the Sri Lanka government's inability or unwillingess to answer her questions, has seriously damaged the credibility of the regime at home and abroad.   

Limits on free speech that were instituted during the civil war have not be lifted.  To this day journalism in Sri Lanka is a threatened industry.  Consequently, many journalists are hesitant to aggressively investigate and/or criticize the government.  In the meantime, Sandya is inspiring Sri Lankans to reject a culture of repression and silence. 


Prageeth was best known by his friends and his enemies primarily for his investigating and his writing.  However, it is worth noting that at the time of his disappearance, Prageeth was arranging the first public display of his cartoons with the help of the United States Embassy.  It is also worth noting that it had taken some time for Prageeth and his friends at the embassy to find a venue that would take the risk of publicly displaying his cartoons.  Many other venue owners were simply afraid that they would become the targets of thugs.  Above is one of those cartoons by Prageeth.  In the cartoon, President Rajapaksa squeezes a giant pen, a symbol for the media in Sri Lanka.   

What CRNI did: 

Upon learning of Prageeth's disappearance, CRNI wrote letters to the Sri Lankan government through the Sri Lankan government's ambassador in Washington, D.C.   On a number of occasions CRNI also posted updates about the story on our website.  As the story evolved, we helped arrange occasional sums of money to be spent to Sandya Eknaligoda.   As the primary caregiver to her children, Sandya was dependent on her husband's income as a reporter for the Lankan E-news.  In Portland, Oregon, on June 18, 2010, during the annual ceremony for the Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning, CRNI gave Mrs. Sandya Eknaligoda a Special Recognition Award for her spirited challenge to the Sri Lankan government to account for her disappeared husband, writer and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda.