Election In Pincodes: As polls near, shadow of Sandeshkhali looms over delta | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: As polls near, shadow of Sandeshkhali looms over delta

By, Basirhat
Apr 25, 2024 04:45 AM IST

Since the turn of the year, the island of Sandeshkhali, 80km southeast of Kolkata and part of the Sunderbans delta, has been in the eye of a storm.

Every night for the past two months, the pattern has been the same. As the sun recedes into the night sky, 52-year-old Sadhan Maity steps out of his thatched hut in Natunpara, and says his goodbyes to his wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

CBI and security force personnel search Sheikh Shahjahan Market in North 24 Parganas on March 8.
CBI and security force personnel search Sheikh Shahjahan Market in North 24 Parganas on March 8.

His lanky frame disappears into the darkness, only to re-emerge at the first light of dawn. The family has taken a strategic decision. They can’t all leave together. If they do, their absence would become conspicuous. So every night, wracked by fear, Maity’s wife watches him go, closes the door, latches the bolt from inside, and prays for the morning to come. Follow full coverage of the Lok Sabha elections here.

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The strategy is built on fear; fear of an attack on his home that is more likely at night when security presence is minimal, more likely if he is at home. So every night, he takes sanctuary in the fields, in the hope that he is more difficult to trace in the dark.

Maity is not alone.

Since the turn of the year, the island of Sandeshkhali, 80km southeast of Kolkata and part of the Sunderbans delta, has been in the eye of a storm. On January 5, officers of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) descended on the village to search the home of Sheikh Shahjahan – a local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader who ran his writ over the island for the last decade – in connection with an alleged ration distribution scam. Whether the 45-year-old Sandeshkhali calls “bhai (brother)” was home or not was moot; the officers came under violent attack from an angry mob that thrashed them and burnt their vehicles, leaving three injured. Shahjahan went on the run, and was arrested after 55 days of protests and high court reprimands.

A month after the attack, Sandeshkhali began to seethe again, but for a different reason. Groups of residents, led mostly by local women, took to the streets -- their protests often turned violent -- alleging widespread sexual harassment and land-grab at the hands of local TMC leaders such as Shahjahan and his henchmen Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

A CBI team along with security personnel during a search in the area on March this year. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)(Hindustan Times)
A CBI team along with security personnel during a search in the area on March this year. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)(Hindustan Times)

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The leaders were arrested by February 17, but even two months later, fear continues to stalk the villages.

“Even though the police were forced to arrest Shahjahan and his aides, other leaders lower down the ladder still roam freely. They could attack us or the police could arrest us. Many villagers have cases against them for attacking properties of TMC leaders during the unrest. That is why I leave every night,” Maity said.

With Lok Sabha elections on the anvil — the state votes across seven phases between April 19 and June 1, with Basirhat going to the polls in the last phase — the shadow of violence stalks Sandeshkhali. This is not new to West Bengal. In elections after elections, from panchayat to Parliament, the state’s polls are characterised not just by a battle for seats, but also for control over the so-called “party society” -- an architecture of localised power that shapes every aspect of daily life, political and social. The winner controls the distribution of wealth and social welfare; its leaders build personal fiefdoms and political legacies. In this battle for control, the principal players can change — it was once the CPI(M) which ran Bengal for 34 years until the TMC wrested it from them in 2011; and now it, in turn, faces an aggressive BJP. But there is always one constant — violence dished out by the local goon, and this year, its grim symbol is Sandeshkhali.

HT graphic
HT graphic

The fear persists

Krishna Das is 45, her face drawn and worried. Outside her shanty, life goes on as usual. But normalcy is a mirage, her experience tells her. Like many others, she has barely slept for two months. “Some leaders may have been arrested but there are more like them. They must be seething in anger. An attack is coming,” she said.

In her eye line, metres away from where she sits by the door of her shanty, Das can see the embers of what was once Shibaprasad Hazra’s poultry farm. On February 9, a mob ransacked the farm and set parts of it alight. Now, the residents of Natunpara and Patrapara wait for retribution.

“Spending nights out also helps us keep vigil. If we see outsiders or the police enter the village at night, we immediately spread word, and people leave. We all have mobile phones now, so it isn’t difficult,” said e-rickshaw driver Sumon Mondal, one of those who has a case registered against him for being an alleged participant in the protests that roiled Sandeshkhali. “I know I can be arrested at any point,” he said.

A senior police officer of the Basirhat police station says that the situation in Sandeshkhali is now peaceful, and they have received multiple complaints against local TMC leaders that are being investigated. “Some people were arrested during the unrest and while some have been released on bail, there are many others in custody. There are cases against local political leaders, and we are probing them,” the IPS officer said, requesting anonymity. The cases are now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation after an order by the Calcutta high court this month, which has been challenged in the Supreme Court by the Bengal government.

The political landscape

In its political history, the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency has always been a harbinger of things to come. For 29 years after 1980, the seat belonged to the CPI(M) which ruled West Bengal undisputedly, largely sweeping both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls. In 2009, however, Haji Nurul Islam of the Trinamool Congress wrested the seat, even as the Mamata Banerjee-led party attempted to wrest the state. Two years later, for the first time in 34 years, the Trinamool Congress swept to victory. Since then, the TMC has won the seat, widening its margins at every occasion -- in 2009 it won by 60,000 votes, in 2014 by 109,000 votes, and in 2019 actor Nusrat Jahan won the seat by 350,000 votes. Basirhat goes to the polls in the seventh phase of the Lok Sabha elections on June 1.

But since 2019, the TMC has come under aggressive challenge across Bengal from the BJP, keen to expand its national footprint. In the Lok Sabha elections that year, the national party won an unprecedented 18 of the 42 seats on offer in West Bengal, up from the two they won in 2014. The TMC course corrected quickly, and even as there was an exodus from the party, including Banerjee’s ally Suvendu Adhikari who is now the leader of Opposition in the state, Banerjee’s outfit won 215 of the 294 seats in the 2021 assembly elections.

Yet, the one unavoidable conclusion was that the BJP cemented itself as the primary Opposition force in the state, winning 77 seats, up from the paltry three it won in 2016. Driven by the public target of 370, the BJP has now set its sights on Bengal again. In Basirhat, where the Muslim population is close to 60%, victory might be a bridge too far. But it is central to the BJP’s strategy of painting the TMC as anti-women, anti-poor and violence-prone. At the core of this plan is Sandeshkhali.


Security personnel during a raid at TMC functionary Shahjahan Sheikh's house in Sandeshkhali in January. (PTI photo)
Security personnel during a raid at TMC functionary Shahjahan Sheikh's house in Sandeshkhali in January. (PTI photo)

Window of opportunity

Every day, motorised ferry boats navigate the waters of the Kalindi river to arrive at the ramshackle Sandeshkhali ghat. But for the last month, as they sputter and announce their arrival, the colours saffron, green and red are visible on a shore which was only green for a decade. On one of the boats, Kishore Das squints at the flags in the distance, and points to the one fluttering in saffron. “I have never seen that colour here before. It was once all red, and then all green. But over the past two months, since the unrest began, there has been a flurry of political activity,” he said.

On March 6, at a rally at Barasat in North 24 Parganas district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone for the West Bengal elections and spoke extensively about the “Sandeshkhali storm” that was set to surge through West Bengal. “The rage of the women will not be confined to Sandeshkhali, and will sweep through Bengal. Bengal’s nari shakti (women power) will put an end to TMC’s mafia-raj,” he said.

The BJP’s choice of candidate was consistent with this political line, and on March 24, the party fielded 31-year-old Rekha Patra, a woman from Sandeshkhali who has no political antecedents but is one of the women wronged by the local TMC’s alleged reign of fear.

Two days later, Modi spoke to Patra over the phone and called her a “shakti swarupa” (reincarnation of power). “Each and every BJP party worker is with you and you have my wishes. You have all the traits to become a public representative. We will all fight for the respect of mothers and sisters of Bengal and I assure you I am with you all,” an audio clip shared by the BJP’s social media handles recorded Modi as telling her.

On their part, the TMC has attempted damage control. During the first few days of the protest, as TMC leaders were chased out of Sandeshkhali by irate villagers, the government sent ministers Partha Bhowmick and Sujit Bose to parley with them. On March 10, the TMC fielded the trusted Haji Nurul Islam, who first won them the seat, instead of sitting Basirhat MP and actor Nusrat Jahan.

Cat-and-mouse game

Over the past few months, there has even been a game of cat and mouse — the government has attempted to restrict the entry of political parties alleging that they were stoking tensions or violating prohibitory orders, and the Opposition has used every method possible to make its presence felt, from court cases, to rallies, to trying to sneak in.

“Both the state administration and the TMC have taken a series of steps after the incident and there is now peace. There can only be a problem if someone from outside goes and incites the villagers,” said state minister Sujit Bose.

But the BJP believes that the fact that Sandeshkhali broke out in protest is a measure of the repression that the locals faced for decades; an anger that has now been let out of the bottle, it feels, offers a political opportunity.

“After the Sandeshkhali incident, the people’s anger and frustration against the TMC has spilled over. Our candidate Rekha Patra is the face of the Sandeshkhali protest. The TMC has tried to malign her, but even those that did have apologised and have openly lent their support to her. Women who have backed Mamata Banerjee feel insulted. There will be an impact on every seat in Bengal, and in particular, in Basirhat,” said Dilip Ghosh, BJP MP and former state party president.

The third force, CPI(M), pointed to the red flags that have come up in Sandeshkhali, and said that it’s the villagers who have hoisted them. “We have held meetings in Sandeshkhali, Nazat and Dhamakhali. We are gradually recovering our party’s offices which were once usurped by the TMC,” said CPIm(M) Tanmay Bhattacharya.

Core issues

Experts say that the reason the Opposition is circling around Sandeshkhali, was that it strikes at the heart of issues that animates Bengal’s politics — law, governance and violence-- and Mamata Banerjee’s core politics.

“People can relate to and identify with these issues in a much deeper manner than they do with issues like corruption. Many are now voicing the allegations that democratic processes like casting votes is compromised by local TMC leaders,” said Rabindranath Bhattacharya, professor of political science at Burdwan University.

TMC leaders dismiss any challenge from either the BJP or the CPI(M) and say that the party’s relative strength on the ground remains robust. “There has been no change in Sandeshkhali. I and Bhowmick held a meeting there which was attended by between 4,000 and 4,500 women. As for the flags of other political parties, anyone can install them. Let the elections be held and you will see,” Sujit Bose said.

On the ground, however, there is some evidence of the incumbent’s concern. Roads are being built furiously, tube wells being installed, and farm lands once systematically grabbed by an alleged TMC syndicate led by Shahjahan are now being returned.

One officer in Sandeshkhali says that over the past two months, since the government set up grievance camps, they have received more than 2,000 complaints ranging from allegations of land-grab to unpaid wages by Shahjahan’s men to roads in disrepair. More are still pouring in. “We are trying to meet these demands but it will take time,” one officer said.

But with less than a month to go, Malina Patra’s mind is in a dilemma that defines Basirhat’s election. For a decade, she backed didi (or elder sister as Mamata Banerjee is known), she voted for her, she admired her.

“But she let us down. We thought she would stand for us, but when we complained the TMC leaders grabbed our lands and assaulted us, she called us outsiders,” she said,

Yet, while there may be anger, there is still indecision. For 10 years, Patra’s family has benefitted from Banerjee’s welfare web — from the Lakshmi Bhandar scheme that gives poor women a monthly grant to run their households, to free ration, to the health cover that the Swasthya Sathi card brings with it. “That is why I do not know yet,” Patra said. “I cannot deny that she has done a lot.”

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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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