NEW DELHI — Sharing funny, satirical cartoons over the Internet can land you in court and even in jail these days in the world’s largest democracy.
A chemistry professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra, from the Jadavpur University in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, forwarded a cheeky cartoon strip to his friends that made fun of the state’s mercurial chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Late Thursday, the professor was beaten up by angry political workers of Banerjee’s party, Trinamool Congress, and later arrested by the state police.
Indian politicians appear to have become very touchy recently. In the past few months, the government clamped down on Web sites and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Google, for carrying defamatory cartoons and morphed images of senior politicians.
Banerjee, who ended a Communist party’s three-decades reign in West Bengal at the elections a year ago, has become the queen of controversies in the past month.
She first wanted the state’s school history textbooks to reduce the number of pages glorifying Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Then, she instructed 2,500 public libraries to buy only newspapers her government approved of.
Banerjee is also a partner in India’s national coalition government. She recently forced her party member Dinesh Trivedi, a national railway minister, to resign because he dared to raise rail passenger fares without consulting her. Mahapatra forwarded a cartoon that made fun of Banerjee sacking Trivedi.
On Friday, the professor’s arrest triggered outrage. Angry students in West Bengal’s capital Kolkata protested by pasting copies of the cartoon all over university walls. One TV commentator said that Banerjee had not only lost her sense of humor but had herself become a laughing stock.
The state’s “new-found aversion to non-believers has gone a bit too far,” said Pranesh Prakash, an Internet freedom activist at the Center for Internet and Society, of the response to the cartoon.
“[Banerjee’s] government wants to decide what people will read in public libraries, and tomorrow she will tell us what we should think,” said Brinda Karat, a lawmaker from the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
West Bengal’s transport minister Madan Mitra said “those who call themselves professors, if they do such ugly things, will never be forgiven.”
The chemistry professor was later released on bail, but not before he was charged with three crimes: humiliating and insulting the modesty of a woman, defamation and sending offensive messages through a computer.