In restive Bengal village, an outpouring of anger, grief | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

In restive Bengal village, an outpouring of anger, grief

By, Sandeshkhali
Feb 14, 2024 04:50 AM IST

Villagers said that once a Left stronghold, the people of Sandeshkhali voted for Trinamool Congress in large numbers in 2011

Anger was still palpable in Sandeshkhali on Tuesday, five days after violent protests, led mostly by local women, broke out in the village to demand the arrest of a Trinamool Congress strongman Sheikh Shajahan and his aides.

Violent protests, led mostly by local women, broke out in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali village since February 7 (HT)
Violent protests, led mostly by local women, broke out in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali village since February 7 (HT)

With sticks and brooms in their hands, the protesters fanned out across Sandeshkhali, a block with several villages nestled between lakes and marshes of the lower Ganga wetlands. By the afternoon, Sheikh’s aide Shiba Prasad Hazra’s house was vandalised and a poultry farm belonging to him was set ablaze. In the days since, more properties linked to Hazra, and another aide of Sheikh, Uttam Sardar, were targeted.

Among the protesters was a 55-year-old woman, who sat in the courtyard of her home overlooking the farm. “I used to work in that poultry farm. It belongs to Shiba Prasad Hazra. I worked there for five months. I was offered 6,000 for a month without any holiday. But they paid me only for three months. When I asked Bacchu Mondol, Hazra’s close aide, to clear the dues they threatened to harm my family,” she said.

With no staff left, many birds at the farm have since died, while villagers rescued the rest.

When HT visited the block and villages, including Jelekhali, Tushkhali, Situlia and Manipur nearby, many shared similar tales of exploitation by the Trinamool leader and his aides. The protests, some of them said, was a reaction from a people who had had enough of forced labour, land grabbing and repeated assaults --- some of them, possibly, sexual.

“I had five bighas of farmland. But three years ago, Hazra forced me to lease out 1.5 bighas so that he could turn them into bheris (fish farms). I was offered a paltry sum of 5,000 per year. But after paying for just one year even that was stopped. If you dare to press him to clear the dues he would call you at his office and thrash you. And if it was a woman, she was threatened with rape. Many villagers have faced it,” said a man who owns a tea stall in Trimoni Bazar, a few metres from the Sandeshkhali ferry ghat.

The man and the woman asked to not be named for fear of being targeted.

While police have arrested Sardar, Sheikh and Hazra are still absconding.

Villagers said that once a Left stronghold, the people of Sandeshkhali voted for Trinamool Congress in large numbers in 2011.

“It has been going on since then. You may say that this is the result of years of torture or harassment. It was just an outburst waiting to happen as the villagers had their back against the wall. They were forced to attend meetings and rallies no matter what. If anyone refused either his shop would be forcibly shut for days or he would be beaten up,” said a third person, a local shopkeeper.

Such was Sheikh’s influence that on January 5, when Enforcement Directorate officials went to search his house in connection with the multi-crore ration distribution scam, his supporters attacked the federal team. Sheikh is known to be a close aide of arrested state minister Jyoti Priyo Mallick, who was arrested in October last year and is now in jail.

“Even the police turned a blind eye. Anyone, who would go to lodge a complaint against Hazra, was told to meet bhai (Sheikh). If someone dared to protest, they would be summoned by Sheikh and his men and beaten up,” said Malati Das, a resident of Tushkhali village.

Trying to reach Trinamool’s leadership, another villager added, would be futile as the trio would find out.

“No doubt chief minister Mamata Banerjee has done many things for us including providing free ration and giving us financial assistance under Lakshmir Bhandar. But these leaders at the grassroot level tortured us. They would say they had the TMC supremo’s blessings,” said a woman, who did not want to be named.

The Trimoni bazar wore a deserted look on Tuesday as prohibitory orders under section 144 of the CrPC were clamped and internet services were suspended. The Calcutta high court, however, set aside the prohibitory orders on Tuesday.

Among the allegations were that women were sexually assaulted by Hazra and his aides, after a video emerged in which a woman could be heard saying that many housewives were forced to stay at the homes of TMC workers and leaders for weeks or even months. HT could not independently verify the allegations or the video.

Senior police officers refuted the charges. DIG CID who went to Sandeshkhali told media persons: “We received four complaints from villagers on Tuesday. None alleged any sexual assaults. Some alleged they were beaten. Most of them alleged that they were threatened with dire consequences.”

A team of the National Commission for Women visited Sandeshkhali on Tuesday but it too did not find allegation of sexual assault. The Calcutta high court has taken a suo motu cognizance of allegations.

“We have been going through hell and hence this outburst. We had heard of the torture in colonial days and under Zamindari system. But this was worse. Now the villagers have decided. It would be either them (Sheikh, Hazra and Sardar) or us,” said a villager.

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