‘They are worse than Covid’: Sandeshkhali still simmering with anger as TMC attempts reboot | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

‘They are worse than Covid’: Sandeshkhali still simmering with anger as TMC attempts reboot

May 30, 2024 06:32 PM IST

In Patrapara, a visit to BJP candidate Rekha Patra's nondescript house was a reality check on how some people seem to have missed the development train.

Amader janyo kichu korte parbe?....Amader baro kosto...ora coronar thekeo kharap (Can you do something for us? We are facing grave hardship and injustice, those guys are worse than Corona)” That's an impassionate plea of a hassled housewife in Patrapara, the epicentre of Sandeshkhali in North 24Parganas of West Bengal. 

Image caption- BJP candidate Rekha Patra's house.
Image caption- BJP candidate Rekha Patra's house.

Over the past months, Sandeshkhali, a small island on the fringes of the Sundarbans, has gained national attention following an ED raid on the house of local TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan on January 5, which escalated into violence. This incident opened a Pandora's box, revealing serious allegations of economic exploitation and grave accusations of rape and molestation against the local TMC figure.

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Read: CBI files first charge sheet against Shahjahan Sheikh in ED attack case

The investigation is on, Shahjahan and his associates have been arrested and ostracized from TMC, and a series of sting operations claim BJP cooking up rape allegations -- all this has been in news, but somehow the voice of the commoners has gone buried amidst political mudslinging.

As the people of Sandeshkhali, part of the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency, prepare to vote in the General Elections on June 1, we caught up with the locals to get a pulse of what is keeping the Sandeshkhalii cauldron simmering.

In Patrapara, a visit to BJP candidate Rekha Patra's nondescript house was a reality check on how some people seem to have missed the development train even as India is tipped to be the third largest economy. A mud house with thatched roofs, no workable toilet, and poverty so stark, that even in the mid of 2024, you'd be easily transported to a Ray movie from the 1960s of Bengal.

Rekha Patra herself has been allegedly subjected to molestation. Her family recounts how Shahjahan's men would coerce poor villagers into menial tasks, with increasingly sinister demands as night fell, often involving the presence of young women. Rekha, being the youngest daughter-in-law of the Patra family, was a vulnerable target for the TMC strongmen's atyachar (injustice -- a word which continued to be repeated time and again).

Read: PM Modi accuses TMC of questioning character of Sandeshkhali women: ‘To protect their Shahjahan…’

Since joining the protest, Rekha's family claims that they haven't received any funds from government schemes (both central and state), including the Lakshmir Bhandar Scheme for women. The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken about Rekha Patra and Sandeshkhali in his speeches, but the condition of these people remains dire.

The Patra family sees the upcoming election as their only hope for change and justice. As we move out of the Patra household, spontaneously a lady shared her voice as to how the local TMC party leadership are guilty of errors of omissions and commissions, by turning a blind eye to the excesses of Shahjahan's men. The lady also added in apprehension that once the elections are over, and if Shahjahan's henchmen Shibu Hazra and Uttam Mondal are out of jail on bail, there may be retribution for those who have raised their voice. Comparing them to Covid-19 which has claimed lakhs of innocent lives across the globe, she said, 'They shouldn't come back.'

The Trinamool Congress is now in a reboot mode in Sandeshkhali, looking to empower party men who were sidelined in the Shahjahan era. One of them is the Sandeshkhali convenor Acchyutananda Naskhar. Nashkar refused to delve into the controversy, saying, "The party has taken action. It is a closed chapter." Citing the sting operation, Nashkar claims that allegations of sexual harassment and rape were trumped-up charges and therefore have being taken back. However, he agrees that some people's land were forcefully taken away by giving paltry amount of money. "But, those are now being returned," he added with assurance. One such person is Kanta Das. Das alleges that his land was grabbed by Shibu Hazra and money was only paid once. Now that land is overflown by salty water, Kanta is uncertain, whether it will be fit for farming even if he gets it back. However, just the fact that Shibu and Uttam are no longer calling the shot is the brief cheer egging him on. He shows us how during the height of the protest, a portion of the house built by Shibu in seized land was burned down.

As we traverse the streets of Sandeshkhali, we encounter numerous individuals with similar stories of oppression under Shahjahan's regime. Not everyone was willing to be recorded or even quoted by name, but the consistent claim was that of Shibu Hazra flexing his muscle to increase his business by oppressing the less fortunate. From poultry to farms, we heard echoes of similar complaints.

However, BJP's poll rhetoric of trying to pit it as a communal incident didn't appear to gain much currency among the locals. Most were either downrightly dismissive of the suggestion or said it has probably happened in Patrapara, but they can't say much about it. For them, it is about how the all-powerful satraps misuse their authority to muzzle the have-nots, extracting favours in different forms and means.

The day we were in Sandeshkhali, a large TMC meeting with cinestars and state minister was about to be held. To exhibit show of strength, TMC was bringing people from nearby Bhangar, alleged the BJP workers. TMC local convenor though remains confident that come elections, Sandeskhali will give lead to them. For many, the election is referendum of a movement which framed the political discourse at least in Bengal this time. For TMC, it is about damage control, so that Sandeshkhali doesn't become a permanent headache for them like Singur and Nandigram was for the Left, finally orchestrating their exit. But amidst all political equations, it's the common man who is left to wonder for answers. Once the dust settles, will they be better off, can they live their life with dignity, is the question they are grappling with for answers.

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