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Indian scientists protest at colleagues’ arrests

Posted on behalf of K. S. Jayaraman.

Indian scientists are protesting against the arrest of two scientists in one week by the Kolkata police. One had poked fun at the chief minister of West Bengal, and the other was arrested during a demonstration.

Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor of physical chemistry at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University was arrested on 13 April after he tweeted a political cartoon that made fun of Mamata Banerjee, who last year became the state’s first woman chief minister.

Mahapatra told journalists that his main intention was to amuse, but the state police charged him with defamation, outraging modesty of a woman and hacking. These offences are punishable with up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 Indian rupees (US$3,900).

He has been released on bail, but the arrest led to protests on campus, with the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association describing it as an assault on education.

Mahapatra’s arrest followed that of Partho Sarothi Ray, an assistant professor of molecular biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata (IISER-K). Ray, one of India’s top biologists, was one of 69 arrested during a sit-in demonstration protesting against forcible eviction of slum dwellers of East Kolkata. He has been in jail since 8 April and has been in judicial custody since being denied bail on 12 April.

“It’s heart-breaking that this academic activist will be spending the next several days in jail — on false charges,”  wrote Thennathur Abinandan, a materials scientist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, on his blog.

Petitions for Ray ‘s release include a letter drafted by members of IISER-K to the governor of West Bengal and another addressed to the prime minister.

“Dr. Ray belongs to a small and elite group of biologists who have the promise and potential to contribute significantly to science,” said Mriganka Sur, Newton Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, in an open letter. “We in the international scientific community view his detention with the greatest concern.”

“The government can either let the scientific community be tarnished in this way, or it can step in right now and have these activists released,”  wrote Rahul Siddharthan, a physics professor  at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, on his blog.

Update, 17 April: Partho Sarothi Ray was released on bail early in the morning on 18 April.


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