Government Paranoia Leads to Jailing for Cartoon in India

States are granted the power to arrest or detain citizens. It follows that governments, which represent the state but are congregations of human actors, should exercise extreme self-restraint in depriving human beings of their liberty, and in particular never use the state's power to settle personal scores.

All these foundational axioms of democratic civility and integrity were thrown to the wind last week by the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, and her party, the Trinamool Congress, when they swooped down upon and incarcerated a college professor for the earthshaking crime of circulating an e-mail that contained a cartoon mocking Banerjee and two members of her party.

The cartoon made fun of Banerjee's recent gesture of firing India's railway minister, a Trinamool Congress member, for his decision to raise passenger fares. But as cartoons go, it was hard to imagine one more inoffensive (and indeed, limited in its appeal because of its labored allusions to a popular Bengali film) than this. The Indian Express reported, in sentences that seemed straight out of a satire by George Orwell or Dario Fo:

In unprecedented action, a senior professor of Jadavpur University and the secretary of a housing society in Kolkata had to spend Thursday night in jail for forwarding an e-mail that contained a cartoon featuring Trinamool Congress leaders Mamata Banerjee, Mukul Roy and Dinesh Trivedi. They were charged with defamation and outraging the modesty of a woman.

Top officers in the Kolkata police confirmed that there was no parallel in the state of arrest and prosecution under the sections applied to chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra and 72-year-old Subrata Sengupta. They were booked under IPC Sections 509 (word, gesture or act insulting the modesty of a woman), Section 500 (defamation) and Section 114 (abettor present when offence is committed) and Section 66 A(b) of the IT Act (causing offence using a computer). [...]

Without referring to the arrests, Mamata said today that there was no place in the state for those who make remarks in bad taste, and that the police were right in arresting anybody who commits an offence. Attending programmes at Burdwan and Bankura, the Chief Minister said that “some quarters” were out to spread “false and fabricated” propaganda against her government, but they would fail.

With this outrageous gesture of intimidation -- aimed, of course, not just at the hapless professor but at all those critical of the West Bengal government -- Banerjee squandered the last of the enormous political capital she had gained last May when she toppled the moribund but all-pervading Communist Party of India (Marxist) after it had held power for 34 years.

Although that victory, and Banerjee's war cry of "poriborton," or "change," were widely hailed both in West Bengal and the rest of India, it was also recognized that Banerjee had an immense task ahead of her in overhauling a political, social and economic milieu disfigured by a generation of Communist rule. Just as revolutionaries are marked forever by the extremity of their methods and the unshakable certitude of their convictions, so too Banerjee's government has been marked by the hubris and paranoia of the very regime that she unseated, democratically (and therefore not decisively).

Among the many reasons why her witch hunt was unwise was that it laid a precedent for the politics of vendetta -- for Banerjee herself to be arrested, in a different time, with a different government in power, for any act of criticism or gesture of ridicule she might herself make. Nothing revealed the McCarthyite turn of Banerjee's government more than Mahapatra's testimony that, when he was assaulted by four Trinamool Congress supporters, they sought to paint him into a narrative of a conspiracy by the Communists:

I wrote an apology but they tore off the letter and ordered me to write that ‘I have intentionally forwarded the cartoon and I am a member of the CPM’. I was scared and wrote the same,” he said. [...]

Minister for Transport Madan Mitra was among the Trinamool leaders who supported the action against Mahapatra and Sengupta. “The incident proves that all litterateurs are not civilised. In the name of education, attempts are being made to convert Jadavpur University into a Maoists’ den,” he said, urging the people to inform the government if any defamatory remarks or pictures of the Chief Minister were spotted on any social networking sites.

As these remarks show, there was very little criticism of Banerjee from any member of her own party -- yet another depressing instance of the core of despotism that lurks inside political parties within the larger frame and context of Indian democracy. It was left to newspapers and columnists to supply the simple but necessary acts of resistance to Banerjee's whimsicality and bad faith. The Telegraph of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, republished the cartoon on its front page. And in a piece in the same paper called "The Moral Minefield," the novelist Ruchir Joshi wrote:

Madam Chief Minister Banerjee,

I am writing this letter to you on my own computer and sending it out for publication via my own email. I am not, and have never been, a member of any political party, of any communist party anywhere including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). [...]

I have also never been a supporter of yours or of your party, though I was certainly among the millions who celebrated after the election results last year. All of us were celebrating the end of the long, incompetent, corrupt, oppressive rule by the Left Front, even though I’m certain some millions of us were anxious as to what your tenure in power would bring. [...]

I myself made a resolution that I would not write anything critical of you or your administration for at least one year. It was only fair, given the huge mess you were inheriting, a mess that was not only administrative and financial but also, centrally, moral. [...]

Instead, we can now see that you yourself were already deeply corroded by those years of Left rule. Instead of being the chief surgeon who could excise and help cure the corruptions of absolute power, you yourself were terminally infected by [...] their poisonous paranoia, by their vengeful megalomania.

Madam, one of the most bizarrely funny things you’ve kept repeating during your election campaign and afterwards is how you want to turn Calcutta into London. Well, perhaps it’s high time we imported some aspects of London culture. For instance, let me tell you how the last four British prime ministers have been portrayed in cartoons in London newspapers: John Major, always wearing his underpants outside his trousers; Tony Blair, as a one-eyed monster, sometimes as a one-eyed poodle trotting after George W. Bush; Gordon Brown, as a square, financial thug and bouncer; David Cameron, repeatedly, as an empty, blown-up condom. [...] Let me tell you, no one has ever sued about these portrayals, no one is beaten up, no one is arrested, no one even lodges a written protest.

Pathetic though it was, it would be unfair to see Banerjee's gesture as an isolated instance of censorship and intimidation by India's government. The inability to digest criticism or ridicule, and a suspicion of the subversive power and global reach of the Internet, is shared by many stuffed shirts in Indian politics, and across the political spectrum. In September last year, a newspaper cartoonist was arrested by the government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Madhya Pradesh for a cartoon of the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, another politician susceptible to megalomania. And late last year India's Communications and IT Minister Kapil Sibal threatened to crack down on Google and Facebook for hosting offensive content, demanding most unreasonably that they employ staff to prescreen content. Heather Timmons reported last December:

At the meeting, Mr. Sibal showed attendees a Facebook page that maligned the Congress Party’s president, Sonia Gandhi. “This is unacceptable,” he told attendees, the executive said, and he asked them to find a way to monitor what is posted on their sites.

In the second meeting with the same executives in late November, Mr. Sibal told them that he expected them to use human beings to screen content, not technology, the executive said.

The three executives said Mr. Sibal has told these companies that he expects them to set up a proactive prescreening system, with staffers looking for objectionable content and deleting it before it is posted.

So it was no surprise to read a report that the West Bengal police had, in the wake of l'affaire Banerjee, decided to write "to Facebook authorities in the US, requesting them to delete malicious web contents (sic) circulated on the social networking site against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and other Trinamool leaders."

Good luck with that.

Indeed, when Shivam Vij wrote, quite correctly, last December that "Kapil Sibal doesn't understand the Internet," that thought could have been extended to most Indian politicians, who (being usually of a ripe old age themselves) came of age in a pre-Internet public culture and can't think of a world of freely circulated opinion beyond newspapers, with their bows to propriety and civility. Hopelessly left behind in a world where ideas zip around and catch fire in seconds in the de-hierarchized spaces of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter (where the Mamata cartoon went viral, and generated links to many new Mamata cartoons -- including this delightful one), most Indian politicians are still stuck in the 20th century. And some, like Banerjee, are still fighting wars against real and imaginary Communists.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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