Toongate: How Mamata Misused the IT Act
Courtesy: Prasanto K. Roy , April 17, 2012
Q. Why did Mamata Banerjee cross the road?
A. To see if the chicken was making fun of her.
In mid-April, the chief minister of West Bengal went viral with a vengeance.
Hundreds of tweets (like the one above by @harqblack) carried the trendy #arrestmenow tag. Courting arrest got a new meaning.
Now, Mamata is not the first to go viral. But such speed is usually found in other domains, and Mamata “Didi” is hardly in the realm of Poonam Pandey or Sunny Leone in any way.
But on April 12, on her direction, Kolkata police arrested a Jadavpur University professor of chemistry for emailing a cartoon to a few friends.
The offending cartoon was mild and childish. It picks a dialogue from the Satyajit Ray movie Shonar Kella (the Golden Fort), and has Mamata pointing to a Railways logo and saying: “See that, Mukul? Shonar Kella!” At which point Mukul Roy sees Dinesh Trivedi and says: “Bad man!” And Mamata says: “Bad man? Vanish!”
But it had Mamata frothing in rage, and Prof Ambikesh Mohapatra behind bars, charged with wild crimes – IPC sections 509 (insulting the modesty of a woman), 500 (defamation) and 114 (abetting a crime), and IT Act section 66 A(b) (causing offence using a computer).
But not before the professor was assaulted by over a dozen goons, four of whom (including two Trinamool Congress workers) were later arrested..
The fallout was immediate. Welcome to social media, Mamata.
The harmless, childish toon went wildly viral across the internet. A thousand people saw it earlier, but in 24 hours, a million people had seen and shared it. In 48 hours, the number reached tens of millions through Facebook, twitter and TV. And a mild, unknown Bengali became the most famous professor in India, an icon of free speech.
The social media were flooded with messages and tweets, mocking Didi—a flood of jokes with the #arrestmenow Twitter-tag that became a top trending tag on that day—and severely criticizing her Hitleresque reaction to a harmless cartoon.
Mamata, who rode into power on a wave of support that included the middle class, closed the loop of alienation of the literate middle class. It wasn’t just the intolerance of the cartoon-arrest, though that was the last straw. The were a series of incidents, including how she reacted to a prominent downtown rape (accusing the victim of staging the rape to malign her as part of a conspiracy, and transferring the police officer who cracked the rape) and her seeing a CPI(M) conspiracy everywhere.
The outburst quickly transferred itself onto global media, with columns, critiques and a range of coverage that Mamata could hardly have aspired to.
There are two big learnings from ToonGate, other than the fact that Hitler is an anachronism in the social media era.
One, banning a cartoon (or any other communication) is beyond stupid, at least as a means of suppression. A thousand-viewer cartoon now has ten million and counting.
Two, that the misuse of the IT Act as an instrument of suppression – specifically, section 66A – will rise.
In India’s IT Act (2008 amendment), section 66A covers sending anything electronically that is grossly offensive or has menacing character..
n this case, the childish, silly cartoon in question (above, and also here) was posted on various facebook profiles,and subsequently used widely in online and electronic media and newspapers. Yet, the professor’s act of forwarding it by email to a few friends has been considered a cyber crime.
India’s Ministry of ICT needs to urgently seek legal advice and recommend a modification. For a start, pre-publication in mainstream media in could become grounds for non-applicability of section 66A. But I am not a lawyer. I am sure that given the will, they can find a way.
And a footnote. I sent that cartoon by email to friends, probably before the professor did. Now it’s on my blog, and on my Facebook and Twitter timelines. Arrest me, Ms Banerjee?
Courtesy: Prasanto K Roy