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Toongate: Has Mamata Banerjee misused the IT Act? (Comment)

Question: Why did Mamata Banerjee cross the road?

Answer: To see if the chicken were 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 celebrity and entertainment domains.

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 apparently had Mamata frothing in rage, and Prof. Ambikesh Mohapatra behind bars, charged with wild crimes -- Indian Penal Code, Sections 509 (insulting the modesty of a woman), 500 (defamation) and 114 (abetting a crime), and Information Technolocy 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.

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..

In this case, the childish, silly cartoon in question (twitpic.com/9975yy) 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 e-mail 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 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 e-mail to friends, probably before the professor did. Now it's on my blog, and on my Facebook and Twitter timelines. Arrest me, Ms. Banerjee?

(Prasanto K. Roy is chief editor at CyberMedia. You can find him on pkr.in and twitter.com/prasanto)



-IANS


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