'The BJP's modus operandi is not just to be intolerant of dissent, it is to create mistrust and doubt between communities and the electoral process itself.'
Payal Singh Mohanka reports.
While a hugely divided electorate in Bengal waits with bated breath for the results of the assembly elections on May 2, a 61-year-old chemistry professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata waits for May 3. That's the day his next court hearing is scheduled for.
It was on March 23, 2012 that Ambikesh Mahapatra did what any of us could have done. Sadly he paid a huge price.
He forwarded an innocuous and amusing cartoon lampooning Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the then Union minister of state for railways Mukul Roy to a few members of his housing co-operative society in South Kolkata.
The iconic Satyajit Ray's endearing detective movie, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) inspired the cartoon in which a little boy called Mukul is duped by two criminals into believing that one of the two caused 'dushtu lok' (naughty man), who is a good person, to 'vanish'.
In the spoof, the 'dushtu lok' who vanishes is Dinesh Trivedi, the then Union railway minister who was unceremoniously removed by an angry Mamata Banerjee in March 2012.
Mahapatra had no clue what awaited him. In the eyes of the state government and the Trinamool Congress supremo, this was a heinous crime.
On the night of April 12, 2012, Mahapatra, who was the assistant secretary of the housing co-operative, and 73-year-old Subrata Sengupta, a retired PWD engineer, who was the secretary and from whose account the e-mail was forwarded, were in for a shock. Hooligans assaulted them.
Both Mahapatra and Sengupta were arrested by the police and taken to the East Jadavpur police station, where they spent a traumatic night in the lock-up.
The next day they were produced before the Alipore criminal court and granted bail.
A 96-page chargesheet was submitted and a case was registered under Section 66A (b and c) of the IT Act.
For Mahapatra, there seemed a ray of hope when the West Bengal Human Rights Commission headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ashok Kumar Ganguly conducted an independent investigation.
The commission's report mentioned police high-handedness and a violation of human rights, democratic rights and freedom of speech.
But the state government rejected Ganguly's report. Mahapatra was not ready to give up.
He submitted a petition before the Calcutta high court, which directed the state government to implement the commission's recommendations within a month. But the state government had dug its heels in.
March 2015 witnessed a landmark Supreme Court judgment that scrapped Section 66A. Mahapatra's harassment should have come to an end. But the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Six years after Section 66A has been removed from the law books of the country, the state government has had the brazen audacity to still victimise the professor.
The case has not been dismissed and the next hearing is on May 3, a day after the election results in Bengal.
With a 30-year-long unblemished academic career, the soft-spoken professor has quietly dealt with the scars inflicted on him and his family by a brutal state administration and patiently plodded on in his quest for justice.
Unfortunately, Sengupta, who was arrested with him on that fateful night passed away two years ago, without receiving justice.
With the support of others who have suffered at the hands of the state government, Mahapatra set up a forum called 'Aakraanta Aamaraa' (We the Victims).
"After the TMC came back to power with an absolute majority in its second term in Bengal in 2016 it ensured that those who had been wronged by the state did not receive any media coverage. Our political masters are in control," laments Mahapatra.
Will May 3 make a difference? Will there be closure for Mahapatra, after 9 years of persecution?
With candour, Mahapatra says, "If Mamata Banerjee loses, my case could be dismissed as Section 66A does not exist in the law books of India. There could be closure for me. But it is worrying as both the TMC and the BJP are very competent when it comes to misusing power. Freedom of speech doesn't exist. You can arrest at will."
"BJP has more power so therefore it is even more dangerous. Many like Stan Swamy, Varavara Rao, Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha have been arrested," says the professor alluding to the activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Is the BJP as a political force far more intolerant, dictatorial and vindictive than the existing regime in Bengal?
Amit Chaudhuri, the Kolkata-based internationally acclaimed novelist, says, "If the BJP comes to power there will be many many more Ambikesh Mahapatras here. The BJP is not a party that observes any decorum."
"They don't care for appearances. And their constituency, the ones who support them, like it that way. There are hostile tendencies towards freedom of expression in all governments not just in India, but across the world," says Chaudhuri.
"I have been very critical of the Mamata Banerjee government but under the BJP we have seen what's happening," the novelist adds. "All the institutions have been damaged. The electoral process, the democratic process has been thrown into doubt.
"The BJP's modus operandi is not just to be intolerant of dissent, it is to create mistrust and doubt between communities and the electoral process itself. So Ambikesh Mahapatra, despite having suffered at the hands of the TMC is right," points out Chaudhuri, "when he says their intolerance is nothing compared to the vindictiveness of the BJP."
Payal Singh Mohanka is a Kolkata-based political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com