By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
FRONTLINE, Volume 29 - Issue 17 :: Aug. 25-Sep. 07, 2012
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s absolute intolerance of criticism resurfaces with the arrest of a farmer.
Mamata Banerjee. Her apparent paranoia has made her overdependent on the police.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made it very clear that she will not tolerate dissent, criticism and jokes against her government and that police action will be initiated against her critics. First came the arrest of a professor who forwarded an innocuous cartoon of her by e-mail; then came the branding of a college student who asked her an uncomfortable question on a private television channel’s chat show as a Maoist; and now an indigent farmer has been detained for voicing his grievances to the Chief Minister at a public meeting.
All Shiladitya Chowdhury, a farmer from Binpur, did was to point out to Mamata Banerjee at a rally at Belpahari in Pashchim Medinipur district that the rise in fertilizer prices was ruining farmers. But that was enough for the angry Chief Minister to label him a “Maoist” and have him arrested under non-bailable sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
On August 8, like thousands of others in the region, Shiladitya had gone to attend Mamata Banerjee’s rally at Belpahari. The area was until recently a known Maoist belt, and so the Chief Minister’s rally was taking place amid heavy security. Shiladitya, who was sitting in the front row beyond the security cordon, got up in between and loudly said that farmers were dying and were not getting proper prices for their produce, that fertilizer prices were increasing, and that the government was not doing enough to redress farmers’ grievances.
Mamata Banerjee reacted aggressively, pointing him out in the crowd and ordering the police to catch him. As he was being led away, she referred to him as a Maoist who had sneaked into the rally ground to create disturbance. Upon questioning Shiladitya, the police found that he had no links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and allowed him to return home. But later, the Jhargram Superintendent of Police, Bharati Ghosh, reportedly claimed that Shiladitya had “escaped” before the interrogation was completed – a feat that is difficult if not impossible given the heavy security at the venue.
After his “escape”, Shiladitya went straight home to Nayagram, but the police waited two whole days before picking him up again on the night of August 10. This time he was arrested under Sections 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty, a non-bailable offence), 353 (assault or use of criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty, non-bailable), 447 (criminal trespass, bailable) and 506 (criminal intimidation, bailable). The following morning he was produced before a district court and remanded in judicial custody for 14 days.
The arrest raised a storm of protest from a cross section of the media and civil society. Political parties, both allies of the Trinamool Congress and those in the opposition, spoke out in one voice against the arrest. Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament Nilotpal Basu said the arrest was tantamount to “autocracy” while West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Om Prakash Mishra called it a “bizarre case of heightened intolerance”.
Ambikesh Mahapatra, the Jadavpur University professor who was arrested in the cartoon case. The West Bengal Human Rights Commission has recommended that the State government compensate him.
The strongest criticism came from an unexpected source – Chairman of the Press Council of India and former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, who had, months earlier, showered praise on Mamata Banerjee for her integrity and uprightness. “Her action is most undemocratic, to say the least. I had earlier given a statement in favour of Mamata Banerjee…. But now I have changed my opinion and believe she is totally undeserving to be a political leader in a democratic country like India…,” he reportedly said. He also warned officials carrying out her orders that they could face a situation similar to those sentenced in the Nuremberg trials.
Even in her days in the opposition when she was heading the violent agitation in Singur that led to the departure of Tata Motors’ small car project from the State, she reacted angrily to any question she perceived to be critical of her movement. The term “Tata’s agent” was attributed to anyone asking her an uncomfortable question. But after assuming charge as the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2011, her threshold for tolerance of any perceived criticism has been diminishing at an alarming rate.
Apart from Ambikesh Mahapatra, a Jadavpur University professor of chemistry, Subrata Sengupta, septuagenarian retired engineer, was arrested for forwarding by e-mail a month-old cartoon relating to Mamata Banerjee’s insistence on removing the then Union Railway Minister, Dinesh Trivedi, from the Cabinet and replacing him with present Railway Minister, Mukul Roy. Her branding of young students who asked her uncomfortable questions on a television chat show as “Maoists” came a month later. As she stormed off the set, she asked the police to take photographs of those who had posed difficult questions to her.
There are many who feel that Mamata Banerjee appears to be constantly looking over her shoulder for unseen enemies. This apparent paranoia, say others, perhaps explains her overdependence on the police. “Apart from the intolerance and undue haste that characterises the present government so far, there appears to be a more-than-necessary dependence on the police. This may be harmful in the long run for any democratic polity,” a senior government official told Frontline. Despite all the criticism, the Mamata Banerjee government has remained unapologetic. On each occasion she and her party leaders defiantly justify their stance, no matter how illogical their justifications may appear.
In the cartoon case, the government and the party’s interpretations of the innocuous mail ranged from being “lewd and obscene” to indicating a sinister plot to kill Mamata Banerjee. The farmer’s voicing of his grievances was interpreted as a dangerous bid to breach security and cause mayhem. Mukul Roy, who was present at that meeting, claimed that Shiladitya was drunk and pushed the police personnel and women around him, although video recordings of the incident show no evidence of such action. Shiladitya, who hails from a family of policemen, had been selected for a training programme at the Central Reserve Police Force camp at Binpur.
As with the previous incidents, this time, too, the Trinamool leaders’ excuses serve only to diminish the credibility of the ruling party. “It is not what he said but how he said it that was offensive,” a Trinamool Congress source told Frontline.
In a development that has caused much embarrassment to the State government, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission’s report on the cartoon incident has recommended that the State government compensate both Mahapatra and Sengupta by paying them Rs.50,000 each for the manner in which they were arrested and detained and take action against the policemen responsible for the arrest. The report states: “Citizens who are expressing or airing a 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 but free speech, which is the life blood of our democracy, will be gagged. Constitutional provisions will be reduced to parchment promises and we will be heading towards a totalitarian regime in complete negation of democratic values….” The Commission also made it clear that “no one can attribute even remotely any suggestion which is lewd or indecent and slang” in respect of the cartoon that was forwarded.
Though it is not binding upon the State government to follow the recommendations, according to political analysts, governments normally abide by such suggestions. What remains to be seen is whether the present report will prompt the Mamata Banerjee government to avoid such embarrassments in the future.