Why is Sandeshkhali, a riverine island in WB, on the boil again? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Why is Sandeshkhali, a riverine island in WB, on the boil again?

May 15, 2024 12:43 AM IST

With Lok Sabha polls ongoing, the TMC is now on the offensive over the developments in Sandeshkhali.

Three months after Sandeshkhali hit the headlines for violent protests led mostly by village women over allegations of sexual assault and land grabbing, the riverine island in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district is on the boil once again.

Sandeshkhali, May 12 (ANI): A clash breaks out between Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers, in Sandeshkhali on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(ANI) PREMIUM
Sandeshkhali, May 12 (ANI): A clash breaks out between Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers, in Sandeshkhali on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(ANI)

On May 12 fresh violence erupted in the village as women said to be led by Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate of Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency attacked Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers with canes, kitchen utensils, sandals and brooms.

The effect spilled over to newer areas on Monday with women blocking the main road for several hours with burning tyres, demanding the release of a woman, whom the police had arrested in connection with Sunday’s riot. Personnel from the Rapid Action Force (RAF) had to be deployed on Monday evening to disperse the protestors.

It was on January 5 that Sandeshkhali made headlines for the first time when Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials, who went to search local TMC strongman Sheikh Shahjahan’s home in connection with the multi-crore ration distribution scam, were attacked; Shahjahan went into hiding, and Sandeshkhali went on to simmer for weeks.

A month later in February villagers, mostly women, staged violent protests, demanding the arrest of Shahjahan and his aides over multiple allegations. Properties belonging to Shahjahan's aides – Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar – were torched and ransacked.

Shahjahan was arrested on February 29 on the orders of the Calcutta high court in connection with the attack on ED. He was later handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In April, the Calcutta high court ordered that the CBI should probe all allegations from rape to land grabbing.

The incident, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, which commenced on April 19, gave the BJP an edge while the ruling TMC went into a defensive and damage control mode. Top leaders of the BJP including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah started targeting the Mamata Banerjee-led party at every rally.

“The women's rage will not be confined to Sandeshkhali. The storm of Sandeshkhali will sweep through Bengal,” Modi had said while addressing a BJP rally on March 6.

Sandeshkhali became a major poll plank for the BJP as the party tried to get a foothold in South Bengal. The BJP, which lost to the TMC in the Basirhat Lok Sabha seat in 2019 by more than 3.5 lakh votes, fielded a local villager and one of the protestors Rekha Patra as its candidate this time.

"While these areas have become TMC strongholds after the fall of the Left, the BJP is now trying to make in roads. This is just a part of the electoral battle. This is likely to continue till the results are out. Both parties are trying to give their own narratives and are ready to grab any opportunity that comes their way to turn the tables. While the TMC is saying it was all fabricated, the BJP is trying to project how the TMC-government ignored the villagers to appease a particular community," said Biswanath Chakraborty, political commentator.

Resumption of tension and hostilities

On May 4, however, the TMC released a purported sting video in which a local BJP leader Gangadhar Koyal could be seen allegedly saying that the entire unrest was orchestrated and masterminded by BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari and women were paid in cash to lodge false complaints of rape.

“Just see how they prepared a blueprint to win elections. They insulted the women in Sandeshkhali. This was their blueprint. They don’t know that the honour of our mothers is more valuable than money. They conspired without realising that everything gets exposed some day or the other,” Banerjee said on May 6, indirectly referring to the video.

With Lok Sabha polls ongoing, the TMC is now on the offensive over the developments in Sandeshkhali. The party has uploaded more videos in which women could be purportedly seen saying they either signed blank documents or didn’t read the document. Fresh videos of Koyal were also uploaded on social media in which the BJP leader could be seen purportedly saying that he would need 50 pistols, 600 cartridges, alcohol and money to keep Sandeshkhali on the boil.

Allegations and counter allegations

Koyal, however, refuted the charges and lodged a complaint with the CBI alleging the video was doctored. The TMC too lodged a complaint with the Election Commission of India (ECI) against Adhikari and other BJP functionaries and leaders whose names surfaced in the purported sting video.

Sandeshkhali unrest was not a political protest, but a spontaneous agitation by locals against atrocities of TMC leaders. Koyal is a BJP leader but he was not associated with the protest. BJP leaders were stopped from entering Sandeshkhali. The voice (in the video) is not of Koyal. We demand a CBI probe,” said a BJP leader.

Over the next few days, the two political rivals released a series of videos with the TMC alleging the BJP orchestrated the unrest with fake complaints and the BJP uploading videos featuring women who alleged that they were threatened by the TMC to tell lies. The TMC alleged that the BJP was threatening the women who were willing to withdraw their false complaints.

With the embers of the earlier tension and violence yet to die out, the new allegations and countercharges have become the latest flashpoint between the two parties, triggering fresh violence in the area.

On May 12, local women led by BJP candidate Patra attacked TMC worker Dilip Mallick, alleging that he was behind the doctored videos. It came on the day when Modi, while addressing an election rally on Sunday, referred to Sandeshkhali.

“The entire Nation is watching what’s happening in Sandeshkhali. First the state police shielded the culprits. Now the TMC has started a new game. TMC’s goons are terrorising and threatening women in Sandeshkhali just because the culprit's name is Shahjahan Sheikh. Guns and explosives are being recovered from his house but in a bid to appease the vote bank, TMC is making efforts to give him a clean chit,” Modi said in Barrackpore in North 24 Parganas.

Police arrested four persons the same day, including a woman Gita Bor, in connection with the attack. They were sent to police custody for 10 days.

“Police are arresting innocent villagers. Multiple cases are pending against Shahjahan’s brother Sirajuddin. Police are not arresting him. But those who told the truth police are arresting them,” said a woman protestor who took part in Monday’s road-blockade but asked not to be named given the tension in the locality.

Basirhat goes into polls in the last phase on June 1. While the TMC is trying to hold on to its bastion, which it has been winning since 2009, the BJP is trying to make inroads in new areas in south Bengal.

With former state minister Jyoti Priya Mallick, who played a major role in the organisational affairs of the North 24 Parganas district, now behind bars in connection with the ration distribution scam and Shahjahan also in custody, the fight for the soul of Sandeshkhali is turning out to be close and bitter one.

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