July 10, 2020
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The Hero Turned Villain

L'affaire Tapas Pal demonstrates how the West Bengal government is willing to go to any lengths to lend support and defend its leaders, even when they have manifestly broken the law

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The Hero Turned Villain
The Hero Turned Villain

June 30, 2014: Videos of actor and Trinamool MP Tapas Pal delivering speeches urging his supporters to rape and murder surface; public and media outrage follows; women’s groups, including NCW demand his resignation; Opposition CPIM, Congress and BJP join in

July 1, 2014: Trinamool leaders express anger over Pal’s remarks; Mamata Banerjee condemns the remarks; TMC national spokesperson Derek O’brien demands a written apology

July 2, 2014: Trinamool leaders claim that they have received a letter of “unconditional” apology and are satisfied with, forgiving Pal for the indiscretion; Pal claimed that he was angered after he visited families of party supporters who were victims of torture and humiliation; media and public outrage continues

All of you

Some remarks made by me in the heat and dust of the election campaign have caused dismay and consternation. I apologise unreservedly for them. Whatever the provocation -- and there was an attempt at provocation -- those comments should never have been made.

In making them, I have let down my constituents and the people of Bengal, I have let down my party, the Trinamool Congress, and my political colleagues, I have let down my family, including my wife and daughter and my parents, and my friends. I apologise to all of them, and particularly to all women in our society and to those in the media who highlighted the issue.

I have no excuses to offer. It was a gross error of judgement and deeply insensitive. It should not have happened. And I assure you it will not happen again. Once more, a humble apology.

Yours sincerely,
Tapas Paul
Member of Parliament
cc: Chairperson, All Indian Trinamool Congress
cc: General Secretary, 
All Indian Trinamool Congress
cc: National Spokesperson, All Indian Trinamool Congress
cc: Media

July 9, 2014: Writ petition filed against Pal by lawyer Samit Sanyal in Calcutta High Court seeking suo moto registration of FIR by the police; court asks state government to explain its position on the case

July 27, 2014: Bench of Justice Dipankar Dutta demands police FIR against Pal and CID probe within 72 hours; state government announces plans to appeal

July 30, 2014: Bengal government moves division bench against order; matter ‘stayed’

August 7, 2014: Stay extended till August 13, 2014

Why the case is ‘unusual’:

  • In state versus an individual case, the individual is usually the accused. In this case the individual is the prosecutor and the state and the accused are on one side.
  • In cases like this— where an individual is perceived to have committed a crime or is perceived to have abetted the commission of a crime— it is the police which is supposed to take action against the individual. In this case, it was left to an individual to file a complaint. Not to the police, but to the court.
  • Instead of directing its police department to act the state government puts a banner in the works of an individual’s attempt to seek justice by appealing for a stay on a single bench order of the Calcutta High Court directing police to lodge an FIR. 

Date: August 13, 2014.

Place: Calcutta High Court. The courtroom of the division bench of Justices Girish Chandra Gupta and Tapabrata Chakravarty. 

This the is the setting of an impending battle between the Bengal state government and an individual petitioner. And at the centre of it is a high profile national political scandal: the speeches of Tapas Pal— actor, Member of Parliament and a member of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress Party (TMC), who was captured on video camera threatening to let loose his men to commit rape on women from opposition political parties and instructing his supporters to commit murder.

“This is an usual case,” observes Debashis Saha, the lawyer of petitioner Samit Sanyal, who claims that Pal’s speeches have put his life and the honour of the women in his family in danger. “Unusual, because ordinarily, in the state versus individual cases, the individual is usually the defendant, the accused of a crime. In this case the individual is the complainant while the accused and the state government are on the same side.”  

Saha points out that his client and his kin are the direct targets of Pal’s hate speeches. “The targets of Pal’s hate speech are men and women of his constituency (Krishnanagar) who belong to rival political ideologies. The fact that my client belongs to that constituency and, though not actively involved in politics, supports a different political ideology, which makes him a direct target. The perceived threat to his own life and the honour of the women in his family has forced him to seek legal protection in the absence of any police action against him.”

The case has fuelled suspicions that the state government is not just reluctant to take action against supporters or members of its own party even when they are perceived to have violated legal, fundamental or constitutional rights of others, especially those belonging to opposing political ideologies, but is willing to go to any lengths to lend support and defend them. 

“In a case like this, it is first and foremost the duty of the police to investigate and make an arrest if required,” says Mohammad Salim, Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the main Opposition party in West Bengal. “But not only have the police done absolutely nothing, when an individual, who felt threatened, moved the court, the state stepped into defend the accused. This is unheard of.”

Indeed, after videos of the hate speeches— delivered in four different areas in his constituency with the content remaining more or less the same (to commit crimes against men and women of the opposition political parties)— surfaced at the end of June this year, the question that came up was why he was not being arrested. While Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressed her shock and disapproval, condemning the comments, after her MP tendered a written apology— to the people of his constituency, his party and others— she decided that the matter was settled. 

“What should I do, kill him?” She had asked rhetorically after public demands and media criticism persisted. Pal was reportedly advised against attending Parliament— which has been in session almost since the time that the tapes surfaced— in order to evade protests and demonstrations in Delhi. In mid-July he reportedly fell ill and was admitted to Calcutta’s Belle Vue hospital (the opposition claimed this too was on the advice of his party leader), from where he has since been released and is now holed up in his house. “We have not seen him emerge even once,” said a neighbour, who admits to prying ever since the scandal broke.

Though individual members of the TMC are divided on the issue, the official position of the party as well as that of the government it forms, seems to be to stand squarely by the side of and support Pal. This became clear after the party appealed for a stay on a Calcutta High Court single bench order delivered in the last week of July by Justice Dipankar Dutta ordering the police to lodge an FIR against him. The stay was granted by the division bench and the judgment deferred to August 13.

“He has tendered a letter of unconditional apology to everyone… the women in his constituency, his own wife and daughter, his party and the people. In spirit it is a heartfelt and humble admission of his remorse,” Derek O’brien, TMC national spokesperson told Outlook. “But the matter is in court and the law will take its course.” 

Reiterating to Outlook “the need to wait for August 13,” Kalyan Bandyopadhyay, TMC Member of Parliament and council for the state government and Pal, justified appealing to the division bench by saying that there was more to establish in his defence including the context in which he spoke.

Speaking to Outlook, Pal’s colleague in Parliament, co-actor in many films and first time TMC MP Moon Moon Sen too said things should be looked at “in context”. She said, “He had just visited the bereaved family of a murdered party worker and he was moved to anger and thoughts of revenge and is likely to have said those things in the heat of the moment. But though he, like most of us, loses his temper, he is generally a very caring human being and thoughtful of others. In all the movies and stage plays in which I have acted with him, he has gone out of his way to help me.” 

But other party members are unequivocal in their condemnation of the comments, apology or not. “Our party’s national spokesperson (Derek O’brien) will convey the official party position, but my personal view is that the comments (Pal’s) were outrageous,” Professor Sugoto Bose, first-time Trinamool MP told Outlook, pointing out that since the matter is in court he would not be able say much more.

In the corridors of Calcutta’s legal lobbies, the “unconditional apology” is not cutting much ice. “You cannot commit a murder, rape, theft or dacoity and say sorry and get away with it,” said Calcutta High Court lawyer Nibedita Roye. “Even if all the things a thief has stolen is recovered, they still have to go to jail. Likewise a speech by someone who is a lawmaker which incites people to violence and crimes like murder and rape cannot be condoned with just an apology.”

Debashish Saha, the petitioner’s lawyer adds further, “Tapas Pal is not just a lawmaker who is an influential figure in society but also an actor— a ‘hero’— whom hundreds of people look up to, admire and even worship. From that position of responsibility, his comments take on a more serious role in its ability to influence. In fact a political murder has subsequently taken place there.”

Ultimately the answer— whether Tapas Pal will be arrested or not— lies with the division bench. In legal and political circles the countdown to August 13 has begun. The buzz is that that day will see a packed courtroom. The irony is that the Bengali film star has always been used to packed movie theatres. But then he always played the part of the “hero.” Suddenly he finds himself accused of acting like a villain.

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