How the victim of Bengal’s political violence became a BJP campaigner
Ten people were killed in March 2022 at Bogtui in West Bengal’s Birbhum in retaliation to the murder of a local functionary of the ruling TMC
Fifteen months ago, the widely shared photograph of Mihilal Sheikh was one of tragedy -- a man broken by the sight of his charred home, and the deaths of 10 people he most loved. On June 1, however, Mihilal Sheikh walked out with a sense of purpose, in a starched white kurta. He stepped into an SUV, took out a saffron BJP scarf, a staple for all party workers as West Bengal goes to panchayat polls on July 8, and unfurled it.
“The scarf sends out a strong signal,” said Sheikh, as two gun-toting policemen stood next to him, deployed by the Birbhum district administration last year.
The transformation from victim to politician is complete.
On the night of March 21, 2022, Bhadu Sheikh, the deputy chief of the local TMC-controlled Barshal gram panchayat was killed in a bomb attack near Bogtui.
In less than an hour, followers of the slain TMC leader carried out a retaliatory attack targeting Mihilal Sheikh and his relatives.
The mob torched two houses, killing nine women and a young man. All 10 victims were from the families of Mihilal (40) and his two brothers, Sheikhlal Sheikh (47) and Banirul Sheikh (49).
Among the dead were Mihilal Sheikh’s eight-year-old daughter Unmehani Khatun, his mother Nurnehar Bibi, his wife Roshanara Bini, and his elder sister Rupali Bibi. “I survived because I managed to escape. We were targeted because we protested against the illegal activities of the local TMC leaders,” Mihilal Sheikh said.
Days after the killings, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began two probes; one investigating the murder of Bhadu Sheikh; and the second, the political violence that followed.
The two cases have seen around 25 arrests, and in June 2022, CBI said Bhadu Sheikh’s murder was the fallout of rivalry between him and his associates over dubious land deals, illegal businesses, and share of extortion money.
The central agency has also told court that Anarul Hossain, TMC’s former Rampurhat community block-1 unit president, not only ordered the retaliatory attack but also supervised it while keeping the police away. Hossain is in judicial custody since his arrest in March last year.
Political battle lines hardened even more on March 21, when Mihilal Sheikh and his relatives observed their first remembrance of the killings at a BJP event, dealing a blow to the TMC which largely controls the area. On that day, leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, unveiled a marble plaque in front of Mihilal Sheikh’s home with names of the victims etched on it.
In response, the TMC, too, unveiled a similar plaque on the same day opposite Sheikh’s home. But the allegiances were clear; the bereaved family refused to meet Asish Banerjee, the local Rampurhat legislator, alleging that he did not visit Bogtui even once in 12 months. The TMC MLA denied the allegation.
Banerjee, who visited Bogtui hours before Adhikari’s arrival, said, “It is not true that the relatives of the victims refused to meet me. I talked to some of them, but I stayed away from the gathering around our memorial plaque to avoid unnecessary confusion.”
He did not comment on not visiting the village earlier.
The chasm reached its nadir in May, when the BJP fielded a 21-year old Merina Bibi, Mihilal Sheikh’s niece, as its candidate from seat 14 (reserved for women) in the Barshal panchayat area.
Bibi’s husband, Kiron Sheikh said, “We survived (the massacre) because we were visiting a relative in another village.”
Sheikh, who is now one of the BJP’s most important campaigners said, “I am focusing on the misrule of the TMC in my speeches.”
Located around 250km to the north-west of Kolkata, Bogtui is locked in a battle to secure Muslim votes in the area. The larger district of Birbhum has a 37.06% population of Muslims among its 3.5 million residents, according to the 2011 census.
“We are focusing on Muslim votes in Birbhum. We have fielded 37 members from the community this year. In the last 2018 panchayat polls we selected 65 Muslim candidates, but none were allowed to file nomination papers by TMC workers,” said Dhruba Saha, BJP’s Birbhum organisational district unit.
The TMC, on the other hand, argues that Sheikh has been hypocritical because he accepted a state government job chief minister Mamata Banerjee offered as part of the compensation package, and later joined the BJP.
On the day she visited Bogtui after the killings, Banerjee had characterised both the accused and victims as “TMC supporters”. Apart from the Group D jobs for Mihilal Sheikh and Taliba Bibi, Bhadu Sheikh’s widow, she gave ₹5 lakh each to the kin of the deceased in compensation and ₹2 lakh to repair each home.
“Mihilal rarely came to work. His presence will have no effect on voters. We have already won two Barshal gram panchayat seats uncontested,” said Moloy Mukherjee, TMC’s Birbhum district unit vice-president.
Mihilal said, “I have told the district administration that I should not be asked to sit in the same office with Bhadu Sheikh’s widow.”