- Strongest charge against Ambikesh was an ‘afterthought’MONALISA CHAUDHURI, Telegraph
The state human rights commission has refused to accept the Mamata Banerjee government’s justification for the arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, citing depositions by top police officers to surmise that the strongest charge against him was an “afterthought”.
“The commission is constrained to put it on record that it finds it difficult to accept the reasons given in the letter of the additional chief secretary for non-acceptance of the commission’s recommendations,” it said in a communiqué to the state government on Tuesday.
The rights commission cited two reasons for not accepting the state’s argument that there was no violation of human rights in the arrest of Mahapatra, who had been first charged with outraging the modesty of a woman for circulating an Internet joke on Mamata Banerjee.
“Senior police officers, including the city police commissioner, had deposed before the commission that Mahapatra was arrested after being charged with a cognisable offence under Section 509 of the IPC. The fact that he was not arrested under Section 66A(b) of the Information Technology Act proves that this stringent section was included as an afterthought,” an official of the commission said.
“It appears that his arrest came first and then the charges were slapped to put him behind bars without considering whether the alleged offence merited these charges,” he added.
Justice Ashok Ganguly, the chairman of the rights commission, said circulating an Internet joke was in no way an offence that called for penal charges of the kind slapped on the chemistry professor. “It was an innocuous mail, based on characters from a movie for children (Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella). How could the police slap such stringent charges for circulating a mail like that?” he said.
Legal experts said invoking Section 509 (intending to insult the modesty of a woman by words and gestures) was “inappropriate” in Mahapatra’s case because the presumed victim never filed a complaint against him.
“According to the rule book, only a complaint in writing from the victim — in this case the chief minister — about outrage of modesty would have made him liable to be charged under Section 509. Circulation of an Internet joke with apparently nothing in it that can be construed as outraging someone’s modesty is, in common knowledge, out of the purview of Section 509,” a veteran lawyer said.
Sections 509 and 500 (defamation) were ultimately omitted from the police chargesheet against Mahapatra. The only charge retained against the professor was under Section 66A(b) of the Information Technology Act (electronic circulation of objectionable content).
The rights commission not only declined to accept the premise under which Mahapatra had been arrested, it also picked holes in the state’s contention that the professor and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta were “rescued from an agitated mob”.
“Police officers during their deposition admitted that the arrestees had been wrongfully restrained before being rescued and taken to the police station. Then why was no action taken against the people who had wrongfully restrained the duo? Instead, the victims were treated as accused and charges were drawn up against them,” the commission official said.
Mahapatra said he would write to the Prime Minister’s Office again about the state’s attempt to justify the harassment he had to endure. “The government has made a mockery of its assurance of ‘immediate redressive action’ to the PMO. I will let Prime Minister Manmohan Singh know about it.”
Responding to Mahapatra’s previous letter, the PMO had prodded the Bengal government last December to “take necessary action” in the case. The state rejected all the recommendations of the rights commission last week.
The rights body had recommended departmental action against two police officers — Milan Kanti Das and Sanjay Biswas — for allegedly harassing Mahapatra and slapped a fine of Rs 50,000 each.
Mahapatra has pinned his hopes on Calcutta High Court, where a PIL filed by lawyer and former mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya is scheduled for hearing in June.
The chemistry professor will not be moving court individually because he doesn’t want to be away from the classroom for long. “Over the past year, I could not attend many classes because of court hearings. I don’t want to miss classes anymore. Otherwise, my students will suffer,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUBHANKAR CHOWDHUR