Land at core of Sandeshkhali’s ire as local islanders rise up | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Land at core of Sandeshkhali’s ire as local islanders rise up

By, Sandeshkhali
Feb 27, 2024 01:29 PM IST

Allegations of land-grabbing and exploitation in Sandeshkhali, India, have sparked violent protests, with villagers recounting tales of coercion and threats.

His tiny tea stall in the heart of Trimoni Bazaar in Sandeshkhali is the very definition of “makeshift” — the walls are made of rickety, worn out bamboo; the ceiling of rusting asbestos. The 52-year-old glances around to ensure nobody is listening. “I had five bighas of farmland. But three years ago, Shibaprasad Hazra forced me to lease 1.5 bighas so he could turn them into a bheri (fish farm). I was offered 5,000 a year, and there was no option but to give in. Anyone that dares to refuse, lives under the threat of assault,” the man says.

Protesters in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district on Sunday. (PTI) PREMIUM
Protesters in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district on Sunday. (PTI)

About 10km away, in the village of Jhupkhali across the river Kalindi, a middle-aged woman speaks in the same hushed tone, her eyes glancing for eavesdroppers. Her husband died in 2019. Within a year, her one bigha of land was usurped. “They promised to pay 5,000 every year, but there was nothing in writing. Hazra released payment for just one year. After that there has been nothing, and every time I ask, they threatened to burn down my home and assault my son,” the 55-year-old woman says.

About 80km south-east of Kolkata, Sandeshkhali, an island with around 10 village neighbourhoods, locally known as “paaras”, is framed by two rivers — Dansa and Kalindi — and part of the Sunderban delta. It has been in the eye of the storm since January 5, when officers of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrived to search the home of local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Sheikh Shahjahan, a close aide of arrested minister Jyoti Priya Mallick, in connection with an alleged ration distribution scam. The team came under attack from an angry mob, leaving three officers injured. Shahjahan has been absconding since that day.

But on February 7, violent protests began erupting in Sandeshkhali and other nearby villages, with groups of residents led mostly by local women alleging sexual harassment at the hands of local TMC leaders including Shahjahan and his aides Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar, both of whom have been arrested. As days have gone past, there has been very little sign of reconciliation, with local ire directed at several other TMC leaders — Ajit Maity, who was arrested on Sunday, Binay Sardar, Bhanu Mondal and Shahjahan’s brother Sirajuddin. The TMC has pointed to the arrests as evidence of action, and promised on Monday that Shahjahan would be apprehended in a week. But apart from the allegations of harassment, and exploitation, there is another allegation that has now taken centre-stage; years and years of organised, unrestricted land-grabbing, built on an edifice of collusion and fear.

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In village after village, the same allegations

Across the villages in Sandeshkhali, nearly every resident has a tale of woe, all with the same identifiable pattern. The farmland continued to be in their names, but in truth, they were taken over by local strongmen and turned into fish farms. People were promised 5,000 a year, but in most cases, these payments stopped after the first tranche.

For those who refused to part with their land, there was a two-pronged strategy that was applied. “We were either threatened or beaten up. If that didn’t work, Shahjahan’s men would dig shallow canals or pump in saline water from the rivers or adjoining fish farms into the plot. Once the saline water entered, the villager would have no option but to yield to their demands because the land would be rendered infertile,” one villager said.

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At the centre of it all is the 45-year-old Shahjahan, known locally as “bhai”, the “matsya karmadhyaksha”(fisheries in charge) for North 24 Paraganas. Until the early 2000’s, senior police officers said, Shahjahan was little known, and worked odd jobs as a driver, or as an assistant collecting fares from passengers who travelled to Sandeshkhali and Sarberia. But Sheikh was both resourceful and a powerful speaker, and was drawn into politics under the tutelage of his uncle Moslem Sheikh, a panchayat level CPI(M) leader. By the early 2010’s, Sheikh had entered the fish trade. “His empire grew, and he started gaining support. He kept in touch with local party leaders, and as his influence grew, he began to be extremely useful in garnering support during local elections,” one villager said.

Shahjahan caught the eye of former minister and TMC leader Jyoti Priya Mallick, and joined the TMC in 2013. Since then, his influence has only grown. “In these parts, he was more powerful than some ministers and legislators. If people complained to the police against TMC men, the police would advise them to approach Shahjahan to reach a compromise. It was him that ensured that the party retained its political dominance in the area,” a police officer said.

Documents filed by Shahjahan during the 2023 panchayat polls — he contested the local body polls in the North 24 Paraganas zilla parishad — show that he officially owns 43 bighas of land (roughly 14 acres) in Sandeshkhali village, valued at around 4 crore. Hazra, who also contested for the same zilla parishad, owns 16 acres in Jeliakhali village. Both Hazra andUttam Sardar are members of the North 24 Parganas zilla parishad.

But locals say that the expanse of the land-grab is massive, and has been kept under wraps for years on end. First, because it was done ostensibly off the books. And second, because it bypassed all official procedures. The 2011 census, for instance, pegged the population of Sandeshkhali at around 160,000, of which 23.4% comprised Scheduled Tribes. An official of the land reform department in North 24 Paraganas district said: “Section 14C of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act lays down a detailed procedure for transferring land belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. Permission has to be sought from the district magistrate who in turn must form an enquiry committee. The district welfare committee headed by a district magistrate gives approval based on the enquiry. Barring a few, most of these plots never changed hands. On paper, villagers still remain owners of these lands.”

Ratan Halder, a 40-year-old villager from Sandeshkhali, points to huge fish farms, stretching as far as the eye can see, behind the burnt embers of what were once poultry farms. Earlier this month, five minutes away from the Sandeshkhali ferry ghat, angry villagers set these poultry farms ablaze. “All these fish farms were controlled by Hazra. These were all farmland owned by villagers once. But they were grabbed, and now all you can see is water and fish farms,” Halder said.

Once the land was usurped, the process was simple. Embankments were built around the plant, and a channel dug to allow saline water in. Most fish farms then cultivated tiger prawns, or fish such as parshe or bhetki. They were then taken to be sold at the wholesale fish market at Sarberia around 50km away, which villagers allege was also controlled by Shahjahan.

“It is not known how much land or what area has been turned into fish farms. All of them have been operating illegally,” a senior official of the North 24 Paraganas district said.

The National Wetland Inventory and Assessment (NWIA), which was published in February 2022 and provides a satellite-based decadal change analysis of wetlands, shows that the area under aquaculture ponds in just the three coastal districts of West Bengal — North 24 Paraganas, South 24 Paraganas and East Midnapore — shot up from 55,299 hectares in 2006-07 to 65,056 hectares in 2017-18. “There is increase in man-made (coastal & inland) wetlands. Development of new wetlands are mainly in aquaculture ponds class,” the report said.

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What has the administration and party been doing?

With crucial Lok Sabha elections on the anvil, and the political heat rising, the TMC has swung into damage-control mode. From February 12, teams comprising state ministers and officials are touring villages and speaking to residents to identify complains, even as an all-women 10-member police team headed by the DIG CID investigates the allegations of harassment.

Since February 18, the police and district administration have also set up camps to receive complaints and grievances from local residents. “We have received around 350 complaints related to land-grabbing from villages in Sandeshkhali. We have already started identifying and measuring lands according to the documents available and have started returning them to villagers. More than 200 bighas have been returned,” said a senior official of the district administration.

Sujit Bose, state fire and emergency services minister, admitted to reporters on Saturday: “There are some grievances among villagers that their lands were grabbed and turned into fish farms. We are verifying the allegations and will address them.”

The allegations of land-grabbing also came up in the Calcutta high court on Monday, with advocate general Kishore Datta telling a bench presided over by chief justice TS Sivagnanam that seven cases of grabbing of tribal land have been registered in Sandeshkhali in the past four years, and a charge sheet submitted in all these cases. At least 24 more FIRs related to land-grabbing have been lodged between February 8 and 22, with 15 arrests made, officials said.

The high court bench observed on Monday: “The media has reported that government has initiated steps to rehabilitate the land that was grabbed and converted. What more proof of land grabbing is required? This clearly shows.”

BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said, “When the state government started giving back land to their rightful owner, this itself proves land-grab has happened. We have always maintained this and today the Calcutta high court has said it. This is happening in the entire Sunderbans. Mangroves are being felled and aquaculture ponds are coming up. The nature of land is being changed.”

On February 16, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee blamed the BJP for the unrest in Sandeshkhali, accusing them of creating fault-lines in the local community. “Outsiders were brought to spread tension in the area. The target was Sheikh Shahjahan. ED first entered the area targeting him. After ousting everyone, they then created a rift between the local tribal and minority population,” she had said.

ALSO READ- ‘Order from Delhi is to keep Sandeshkhali issue alive until....’: Trinamool

The TMC has, however, maintained that they were carrying out investigations into all the allegations that have come to the fore, including harassment and land-grab, and said that Shahjahan who has been absconding for over a month, would be arrested within a week. Kunal Ghosh, TMC spokesperson said, “National general secretary Abhishek Banerjee said on Sunday that the high court had tied the hands of the state police. We thank the high court that has given the police the go-ahead, and Shahjahan will be arrested within seven days.”

State cabinet minister Partha Bhowmick, one of the ministers that has been touring Sandeshkhali said that nobody would be spared from government action. “The party has not spared senior leaders like Partha Chatterjee. The names that are emerging in the Sandeshkhali unrest are low-level, low profile leaders,” he said.

Back in Sandeshkhali, however, even as there is some solace in a modicum of state action, there is still anger, and very little faith. “All these years, the government never took our complaints. Instead they would tell us to settle the dispute with bhai (as Shahjahan was locally known),” one villager said. “Who knows what will happen now.”

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