The West Bengal government suffered a jolt on Tuesday when the Calcutta high court directed it to pay Rs 50,000 to a Jadavpur University professor and his neighbour who were arrested and harassed three years ago for circulating a cartoon that lampooned chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
The court ruled that the amount should be paid to Ambikesh Mahapatra and his neighbour, Subrata Sengupta, within a month as compensation for the harassment caused to them.
The court also ruled that departmental proceedings should be launched against an additional officer-in-charge and a sub-inspector for arresting the two men.
"This verdict will help preserve the freedom of speech of the common man," remarked Mahapatra. However, he said he was not sure the state government would implement the order.
The West Bengal Human Rights Commission had earlier taken suo moto action and ordered the government to pay Rs 50,000 each to both men on the same grounds. The panel too had recommended action against the two police officers for being “over-zealous” in arresting the men.
The state government has so far ignored the commission’s recommendations.
On April 12, 2012, Mahapatra and Sengupta were arrested for emailing the cartoon based on a scene from Satyajit Ray's popular movie Sonar Kella.
The cartoon, which was widely circulated on the internet, was based on a scene in the film in which a boy is duped by two criminals into believing that they caused someone to vanish. In the cartoon, the vanishing man was a reference to former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi, who was forced out of office by Banerjee.
At the time, Banerjee had said, "If one commits an offence, one has to face arrest. Conspiracies won't be tolerated." She even claimed the cartoon contained a coded message to kill her.
But Mahapatra, who has been teaching at the university for 17 years, had said he did not repent his actions.
The state government's response to the cartoon made headlines around the country as one of the earliest examples of the high-handedness of the chief minister. The police had submitted a 93-page charge sheet against the two men.
After the high court gave its ruling on Tuesday, former state human rights commission chairman Asok Ganguly, who had directed the state government to compensate Mahapatra, said: "This is the victory of democracy. I wanted to ensure the common people have their democratic space.
"Ambikesh Mahapatra had done nothing to attract arrest," said Ganguly, a former Supreme Court judge.