Sandeshkhali unrest part of a long line of TMC–BJP pre- and post-flashpoints - Hindustan Times
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Sandeshkhali unrest part of a long line of TMC–BJP pre- and post-flashpoints

Apr 15, 2024 09:04 PM IST

Political storms around the time of elections are not new in the state. Panchayat, assembly and Lok Sabha polls routinely witness violent clashes in West Bengal

Flags, banners and wall graffiti of political parties have again started coming up in the nondescript village of Jorepatki at Sitalkuchi as Cooch Behar in north Bengal heads for the Lok Sabha polls in the first phase on April 19. But for 25-year-old Pinku Rahaman and his family, elections bring back horrific memories.

Sandeshkhali, India - March 8, 2024: CBI Team along with Security Force personnel searched the Sheikh Shahjahan Market at Sarberia in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India, on Friday, March 8, 2024. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Sandeshkhali, India - March 8, 2024: CBI Team along with Security Force personnel searched the Sheikh Shahjahan Market at Sarberia in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India, on Friday, March 8, 2024. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times)

On April 10, 2021, when the West Bengal assembly elections were going on at Sitalkuchi, an assembly seat in the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha constituency, Central armed police force personnel (CAPF) opened fire killing four youths of the village.

“I lost my elder brother Maniruzzaman. He was the only earning member of the family. My father Amjad Hossain (58), developed psychological problems and is bedridden now. My mother Mamata Bibi (50) is still in a state of shock. I had to take up the job of a tractor driver,” said Rahaman, adding that the three other victims were his relatives.

A 17-year-old first-time voter Ananda Barman from Pathantuli village, around 15 km from Jorepatki also lost his life on the same day in a political clash.

The two incidents, in the middle of the eight-phase assembly polls, turned into a major flashpoint between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal and its arch-rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the CAPF comes under the jurisdiction of the Union home ministry.

The then superintendent of police of Cooch Behar Debasis Dhar, who told the media that CAPF had opened fire in self-defence was suspended. A CID probe was ordered. The IPS officer, who was sent to compulsory waiting, resigned and joined the BJP earlier this year. He has been pitted from Purulia in the coming Lok Sabha polls.

“One member from each of the victims’ families was given a job as a home guard by the state government and 5 lakh as compensation. Maniruzzaman’s wife got the job and she snapped all connections with us,” said Rahaman.

While the Sitalkuchi firing has almost taken a back seat, the month-long Sandeshkhali unrest in North 24 Parganas has kicked off another political storm this time ahead of the Lok Sabha polls this year.

A month after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) came under attack when the federal agency went to search the house of TMC strongman Sheikh Shahjahan, protests erupted on the island with villagers, mostly women, demanding the arrest of Shahjahan and his aides over allegations of land grabbing and sexual assault against women.

The Calcutta high court (HC) has already ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe and the TMC leader along with his aides Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar were arrested. They are now in jail.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking at a rally on March 6 in North 24 Parganas, said that the Sandeshkhali storm will sweep through the state this time.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, while addressing a rally at Alipurduar in north Bengal on April 5, however, claimed that Sandeshkhali was a local issue.

Political storms around the time of elections are not new in the state. The 2023 panchayat polls also witnessed violent political clashes leaving dozens dead in the eastern state primarily as a result of clashes between the two rival parties.

Some of the BJP’s main poll planks in the rural polls were corruption, poll violence and communal clashes. The state witnessed massive post-poll violence after the 2021 assembly elections in which several people were killed.

Communal clashes erupted during the Ram Navami celebrations in places such as Howrah and Hooghly at the fag-end of March and the first week of April in 2023, a few months before the panchayat polls.

“In April 2023 the Calcutta high court ordered a NIA probe into the Ram Navami violence. At least 27 people have been arrested so far. Investigations are going on. The state police had initially registered a case against 36 people,” said an NIA officer.

Alleged corruption at the grassroots level of the TMC had become a major issue in the 2021 polls. The BJP had led an all-out attack against the Mamata Banerjee-led party over “cut money”, the colloquial term for extortion after allegations of massive corruption surfaced during the distribution of relief to people affected by Cyclone Amphan in May 2020.

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) triggered a hot debate. This time however the BJP leaders, however, have not been on the offensive. Instead, they are on the defensive to counter TMC's allegations that NRC would follow CAA and it’s a trap.

“It is very natural that the flashpoints will fade. People’s memory is very short and they are getting shorter because of the increasing flow of information on multiple platforms. It is very obvious that they will forget the issues which became flashpoints during an election particularly when they are negative. The longevity of such issues is very limited. Only the affected people and victims remember them,” said Subhamoy Maitra, a political commentator.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Joydeep Thakur is a Special Correspondent based in Kolkata. He focuses on science, environment, wildlife, agriculture and other related issues.

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