Kolkata: In April 2012, Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who teaches chemistry at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, was arrested after he forwarded an email containing a cartoon spoofing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The cartoon sequence, based on Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella, was a satirical take on Dinesh Trivedi being replaced by Mukul Roy as Union railway minister; it had a picture of Mamata Banerjee.
While the FIR against Prof. Mahapatra had IPC sections 509 (word, gesture or act insulting the modesty of a woman), 500 (defamation), 114 (abettor present when offence is committed), and then Section 66 A(b) of the IT Act (causing offence using a computer), the eventual 96-page police charge sheet dropped all the charges, barring sections 66A(b) and 66A(c) (punishment for identity theft) of the IT Act.
Nine and a half years on, Prof. Mahapatra is still mired in a legal battle, even though the Supreme Court scrapped Section 66A of the IT Act six years ago in 2015. In July this year, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked all states to drop all cases filed under Section 66A.
Then, in September, a local court dropped Section 66A in the charge sheet against Prof Mahapatra, but kept the case against him going.
In its order dated 14 September, the court of the chief judicial magistrate of Alipore (South 24 Parganas), said, “The accused Ambikesh Mahapatra is discharged from the charge under Section 66 A of the Information and Technology Act, 2000, but the accused Ambikesh Mahapatra is not discharged from the case being Number C 1810/2016 pending before the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Alipore.”
The court further set 17 November as the next date of hearing to determine “whether any case under Section 500/509 of the IPC or any other law can be made out against the accused Ambikesh Mahapatra or whether the accused Ambikesh Mahapatra merits to be discharged from the case”.
Prof. Mahapatra told ThePrint that he was shocked by the local court order.
“The last order in my case is shocking. The court is surely influenced by the ruling Trinamool Congress government. My case was not dropped even after the Supreme Court in its order directed all courts across the country to drop all such cases and not file fresh ones,” he said.
“In the past six years, since March 2015, when the SC order came, I have got at least 20 to 25 dates for hearing. But everything has been futile. There has been no proper hearing. This July, after the MHA wrote to the states for dropping such cases after another PIL was filed before the SC related to this, the Calcutta High Court asked all lower courts to present a status report on such cases. It was only then, that the Alipore court dropped Section 66A, but in its order, mentioned that the case will remain active,” Mahapatra added.
In all these years, Mahapatra said he has spent lakhs in fighting the case, while also facing personal hurdles such as the one with his passport last year.
“The passport authority asked me to get a no-objection certificate from the court and I got it. They renewed my passport for 10 years and I got it delivered at home. But later, I was called to the passport office and asked to surrender it,” he said. “I was told that the authority received an adverse report from the police twice for my verification. So they revoked my passport and issued a conditional one for a year. Why am I being subjected to such humiliation and harassment? I did not get justice in the past 10 years,” he said.
West Bengal Law Minister Moloy Ghatak, however, told ThePrint that the government had nothing to do with the case.
“This Ambikesh Mahapatra case is an old and complicated one. I don’t remember all aspects of the case, but there are some other sections too,” he said. “(Section) 66A has been dropped. As for the other sections, the court concerned can take a call. The government does not have any role to play; the law will take its own course,” he said.
SC referred to Mahapatra’s case in IT Act judgment
In March 2015, when the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act in the landmark Shreya Singhal v. Union of India case, it called the legislation “open-ended and unconstitutionally vague”, thereby expanding the contours of free speech to the internet.
According to Mahapatra, his case was also referred to while the case was on before the apex court. “They referred to my case during the hearing sessions. There are hundreds of similar cases across the country,” he said. “The court order was clear. It asked all courts to drop such old cases too.”
In 2013, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), then led by retired Supreme Court Justice Ashok Ganguly, took suo motu cognisance of the case and asked the state to compensate Prof. Mahapatra with Rs 50,000. In 2015, the Calcutta High Court directed the state to implement the WBHRC order.
The compensation never came, and the order was never implemented, Prof. Mahapatra claimed.
Asked about the issue of compensation, a senior official of the state’s law department said, “The case is still sub judice. The government is acting as per the legal process.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)