Ambikesh Mahapatra Cartoon Incident in West Bengal
Ambikesh Mahapatra, a chemistry professor of the prestigious Jadavpur University, sent an email to 65 of his friends. The email contained a political cartoon criticizing Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s first female Chief Minister. The professor was assaulted by alleged Trinamool Congress activists, then arrested by the police. While as the victim of the assault Professor Mahapatra was forced to spend a night at a police station, his attackers – Amit Sardar, Arup Mukherjee, Sheikh Mustafa and Nishikanta Gharai – were arrested on the next day and released on bail just two hours later. In the meantime, the cartoon was being shared across social networking websites. The professor’s arrest led to outrage in Kolkata and across the Web, with many people posting angry messages on Twitter, such as author Taslima Nasreen’s “Shame! Shame! A professor is arrested over a cartoon in Kolkata. It’s an extreme violation of freedom of expression!”
Ms. Banerjee was brought to power by a landslide victory, defeating the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, which ruled the state for 34 years, the world’s record for a democratically-elected communist government. But more recently, Ms. Banerjee has been called by her critics “whimsical”, “megalomaniac”, “eccentric”, and a “populist politician”. In the wake of the cartoon incident, the Left Front leader Brinda Karat joined the critics by calling this episode “a clear assault on the democratic right of freedom of expression”. Mamata Banerjee personally defended the professor’s arrest and was also behind the state government’s instruction to 2,500 public libraries on what newspapers they can stock: several leading papers, including the most widely read Bengali daily newspaper Anandabazar Patrika and all English dailies, were dropped. As a result, Ms. Karat accused Ms. Banerjee of dictatorial measures: “she decides on what people should read in library, tomorrow she will tell us what to think… she cannot tolerate a single word of criticism”. Other pundits, such as BD Sharma, the mediator in the recent Maoist hostage crisis in Odisha, agree that “this is a fascist trend that people won’t appreciate”.
But the violation of the freedom of expression is only one disconcerting aspect of this story. The offending cartoon depicted Mamata Banerjee conspiring with now Railway Minister Mukul Roy to force a resignation of Mr Roy’s predecessor in the Rail Ministry, Dinesh Trivedi. Curiously, while the cartoon is purely political in nature, the charges brought against Prof. Mahapatra included eve-teasing (the Indian term for sexual harassment) and humiliating a woman. It is disturbing because treating any critique of a female politician as sexual harassment helps strengthen the anti-feminist argument that women cannot and should not participate in “big politics”.
And what of Professor Mahapatra? Initially, he apologized for sending the cartoon, but as reported by HindustanTimes, after being released from police custody he said that he was not sorry and would again send such emails in the future, but he also betrayed his fear for his life: “I’m not free of insecurity”.
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