“Compensate professor and his neighbour for their arrest for a non-cognisable offence”

The West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC) on Monday recommended departmental proceedings against two police officers of the Purba Jadavpur police station in connection with the arrest of Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor at Jadavpur University, and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta. They were arrested in April for circulating e-mail containing cartoons of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and other Trinamool Congress leaders in April.

The recommendations are a setback to the Mamata Banerjee government. The Chief Minister herself had taken strong exception to the cartoons, pointing out that they were an attempt at “character assassination.”

The Commission, which took suo motu cognisance of the incident and started a probe, has also said the State government must compensate both Prof. Mahapatra and Mr. Sengupta for the manner in which they were arrested from their residences and detained in the police station for a non-cognisable offence.

“Their compensation has been assessed at Rs. 50,000, to be paid to each of them within a period of six weeks from the date,” the Commission said.

Reacting to the recommendations, Prof. Mahapatra told The Hindu that the development was welcome for all who believed in democracy and freedom of speech.

“The two police officers who arrested me were acting at the behest of others. Action should be taken against those persons also,” he said.

WBHRC chairperson Justice (Rtd.) Asok Kumar Ganguly and two other members of the Commission described the incident as a “case of police excess and high handedness, especially when those two persons are otherwise respectable citizens without any criminal record.”

In its recommendation, the WBHRC observed that “citizens who are airing critical opinion 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.”

After taking up the matter, the WBHRC asked the police to probe the matter and submit a report. The report submitted by Additional Commissioner of Kolkata Police (1) stated that both Mr. Sengupta and Prof. Mahapatra were taken into “protective custody.” The police, however, in a deposition before the Commission, failed to explain what it meant by protective custody, the Commission stated in its recommendation.

The WBHRC pointed out that charges against the two persons under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code — the only cognisable section which pertains to word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman — prima facie does not stand.

Commenting on the recommendations of the WBHRC, Trinamool Congress MP Kunal Ghosh said he had nothing to say if the police was found to be at fault. However, he asked: “Will the Commission also protect the rights of those whose character is being maligned?”