Crime of criticism in West Bengal

Print edition : November 22, 2019

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee (right) at a rally in Kolkata on August 28. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

Sanmoy Bandopadhyay. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In West Bengal, Congress spokesperson Sanmoy Bandopadhyay is arrested and allegedly tortured for posting on social media views critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee.

The arrest and alleged torture of Congress spokesperson Sanmoy Bandopadhyay by the police for apparently posting views critical of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew and Lok Sabha member Abhishek Banerjee on social media has once again brought to the fore the Trinamool Congress government’s intolerance for any kind of criticism or dissent.

Sanmoy Bandopadhyay, an outspoken critic of the Trinamool government for a long time, was apprehended from his house in Agarpara, North 24 Parganas district, on the evening of October 17, allegedly by the police, and taken to Purulia district, more than 280 km away. According to reports, the arrest was made after a complaint was lodged with the cybercrime wing of the Purulia Police. Interestingly, Abhishek Banerjee, the heir apparent to the Trinamool leadership, is in charge of Purulia district for the party.

Sanmoy Bandopadhyay was granted bail on October 20 by a Purulia court on the condition that he appear before the investigating officer at Purulia police station once a week.

“On October 17 from 7:30 p.m. until 4:40 the next morning, I was subjected to inhuman torture in Khardah police station [in North 24 Parganas]. I had heard of the use of third degree, this time I understood what it was about. I was dragged bare-bodied, and beaten mercilessly. I was not even allowed a drink of water and was made to sit on a stool in police custody for nine hours. Then in the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, I was put into a car [and taken to Purulia]… My point is why will they not allow a person to speak? If I had said something that was wrong they could have taken me to court,” said Sanmoy Bandopadhyay, after getting bail. Breaking down before journalists while narrating his ordeal, he said: “This is because I have spoken out against the jungle raj prevailing under aunt and nephew [Mamata and Abhishek]… but why get the police to torture me for it?”

According to Sanmoy Bandopadhyay, he had been receiving threats for quite some time for voicing his opinion on social media platforms. “I have been writing extensively against the undemocratic manner of governance in the State and time and again have voiced my opinion on television news channels. For that I have been repeatedly threatened over telephone by the nephew’s goons; but I never once thought that they would use the police on me,” he said.

Sanmoy Bandopadhyay’s arrest and alleged torture has elicited widespread criticism from social and political circles. All parties, cutting across political lines, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have joined the Congress in strongly condemning the police action. “It was an attack on the freedom of speech and an attack on the freedom of the media. The charge against him [Sanmoy Bandopadhyay] was defamation; but if it is defamation, then the police cannot take up the investigation. Legally, the individual who has been defamed has to complain to the magistrate, and the magistrate will have to try the case. Moreover, the Supreme Court has made Article 66A of the IT [Information Technology] Act ultra vires and you cannot arrest someone simply for something he has written online…. What is most dangerous is the violation of human rights in this particular case. Sanmoy Bandopadhyay was physically tortured in such a manner that he is absolutely broken,” the CPI(M) leader and eminent lawyer Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharjee told Frontline.

A BJP team visited Sanmoy Bandopadhyay’s residence when he was in prison. “We sent our leaders to the home of Sanmoy Banerjee [Bandopadhyay] to express solidarity with him as he is a victim of the Trinamool government’s intolerance,” said State BJP president and Lok Sabha member Dilip Ghosh.

Almost right from the time she assumed power in the State in 2011, Mamata Banerjee has time and again shown a streak of authoritarianism that does not allow any space for criticism or tolerate dissent. The police have been used repeatedly as an instrument for silencing voices perceived to be unflattering to the govenment. Many political observers feel that by arresting Sanmoy Bandopadhyay, the State government was making an example out of him in order to deter other critics from making their observations public.

This arrest brings to mind a similar incident in 2012 when Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor of chemistry at Jadavpur University, was arrested for forwarding an innocuous cartoon strip relating to the Chief Minister’s insistence on removing Trinamool leader and Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi from the Cabinet and replacing him with Mukul Roy (who was at that time a Trinamool Rajya Sabha member and is at present a BJP leader). The cartoon was a spoof on Satyajit Ray’s famous film Sonar Kella (Golden Fortress). Ambikesh Mahapatra was charged with outraging the modesty of a woman, defamation and hacking (using the Internet to spread defamatory messages). Referring to the word “vanish” used in the cartoon strip, Mamata Banerjee claimed that “it was a political conspiracy to murder me”.

The same year, Shiladitya Chowdhury, an indigent farmer, found himself at the receiving end of Mamata Banerjee’s wrath for pointing out at a rally in Pashchim Medinipur district that the rise in fertilizer prices was ruining farmers. The Chief Minister labelled him a “Maoist” and had him arrested under non-bailable sections of the Indian Penal Code. On another occasion, she even accused two young girl students of being “Maoists” for asking uncomfortable questions at an interactive session organised by a television news channel and reportedly instructed the police to take photographs of those whose questions annoyed her.

In 2017, two people from Balurghat district in north Bengal were arrested, apparently for criticising on social media the traffic restrictions imposed by the police during Durga Puja. According to reports, the police said the two who had made the posts were trying to incite people against the police force. More recently, in May 2019, Priyanka Sharma, a Yuva Morcha leader, was arrested and slapped with non-bailable charges for posting a photoshopped image of Mamata Banerjee on social media. After spending several days in prison, she was granted bail by the Supreme Court.

The well-known political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that this kind of intolerance of criticism is not unique to West Bengal. “Both the government at the Centre and the one in the State are not able to tolerate the very freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which forms the basis of our democracy,” he said. At a time when the Trinamool Congress is fast losing ground to the BJP in the State and questions are being raised on the ruling party’s highhandedness and attacks on democracy, the latest incident is not going down well with the general public. “We saw the Trinamool losing seats in this year’s Lok Sabha election in spite of the development work taking place at the local level, mainly because of the perceived curbs put on people’s democratic rights. This has been witnessed in the day-to-day political processes in general and it was particularly so in the last panchayat elections. While the ruling party is trying to get rid of this image, it is likely to get further cemented because of Sanmoy Bandopadhyay’s arrest,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.

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