Why Sandeshkhali in West Bengal has been on the edge over the past week | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Why Sandeshkhali in West Bengal has been on the edge over the past week

Feb 18, 2024 03:26 AM IST

Villagers allege that the police turned a blind eye to their complaints against the TMC leaders; of the three men accused, two have been charged with gangrape

The island of Sandeshkhali in the Sundarbans of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, about 75 km from Kolkata, has been roiled by protests since February 8, pushing the Trinamool Congress (TMC) state government on the defensive.

Kolkata, India - Feb. 15, 2024: Citizens staged protest against Trinamool Congress (TMC) run State Government over violence against women in Sandeshkhali of North 24 Parganas district at Hazra in Kolkata, India, on Thursday, February 15, 2024. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Kolkata, India - Feb. 15, 2024: Citizens staged protest against Trinamool Congress (TMC) run State Government over violence against women in Sandeshkhali of North 24 Parganas district at Hazra in Kolkata, India, on Thursday, February 15, 2024. (Photo by Samir Jana/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times)

Hundreds of village women armed with lathis, farming tools and brooms had hit the streets last week demanding the arrest of three local TMC leaders – TMC strongman Sheikh Shahjahan and his two aides Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

The police on Saturday said that they have charged the latter two with gang rape. Hazra was arrested late Saturday night from the Nazat area in North 24 Parganas, the police said. He will be produced before the Basirhat court on February 18.

“We came to know that a woman made a statement under section 164 of CrPC before a judicial magistrate. We have accepted the complaint and we will act on any kind of evidence. We have added IPC to the section and we will bring all perpetrators to the book, whosoever he is,” Rajeev Kumar, state’s director general and inspector general of police said.

"We talked to so many women. None of them made any such statements before us," he added.

Masses rise against local TMC leaders, alleging years of exploitation

The allegations are that Sardar and Hazra, led by Shahjahan, had unleashed a reign of terror in Sandeshkhali and its adjoining areas soon after the TMC came to power in West Bengal in 2011.

“Farmlands of villagers were grabbed forcefully and converted into fish farms. Women who used to work in the Hazra’s poultry farms were often not given payments. If anyone protested, they would be beaten up. Villagers, including women, were forced to attend political meetings even at night. If anyone refused, his shop would be forcibly shut for days and he would be beaten up. Sometimes, women were threatened with rape,” said a villager who refused to be identified.

A video surfaced on Sunday, February 10 -- the veracity of which Hindustan Times could not independently confirm – 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.

The mass protests coupled with opposition parties trying to reach the village prompted the police to clamp prohibitory orders under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), since Friday, February 9.

Police turned a blind eye over the years, say villagers

Villagers alleged that the police turned a blind eye to their complaints against the TMC leaders over the years. Whenever any villager approached the local Sandeshkhali police station, he was told to meet Bhai (as Shahjahan is popularly known) or his aides and settle the dispute.

“If anyone dared to protest, he would be beaten up. In 2019, chief minister Mamata Banerjee launched a phone number on which people could lodge their complaints and grievances directly. But if anyone dared to call that number, he would be identified and meet the same fate,” said another villager.

It was only after the mass protests started last week that Sardar was suspended from the TMC and later arrested. Shahjahan and Hazra are, however, still absconding.

“Senior lady IPS (Indian Police Service) officers of DIG (Deputy Inspector General) level rank went to the area on Tuesday, February 13 to speak with the women villagers. This process will continue. Our main aim is to ensure the safety of the women and other villagers. We would request villagers to come up if they have any kind of complaint,” Sumit Kumar, DIG of Barasat range, told media persons.

Calcutta High Court takes suo moto cognizance; Bengal Governor rushes to Sandeshkhali

On Tuesday, February 13 a Calcutta High Court single judge bench of Justice Apurba Sinha Ray took suo moto cognisance of the Sandeshkhali incident based on media reports.

“I am very much disturbed with what is going on in Sandeshkhali. It is very unfortunate. Allegations have surfaced that women were sexually assaulted at gunpoint and tribal lands were forcefully taken away,” Justice Ray said while taking up the case.

The bench appointed high court advocate Jayanta Narayan Chatterjee, as amicus curiae in the case, and directed the registrar general to issue notices to the state government, police and district administration. The court will hear the matter again on February 20.

Also on Tuesday, February 13, another single judge bench of Justice Jay Sengupta set aside the prohibitory orders imposed in Sandeshkhali, saying that the orders were imposed without reasoning and pointing out that no material was placed on record to justify placing the entire Sandeshkhali police station area under prohibitory orders. On Wednesday, however, the district administration imposed fresh prohibitory orders in 19 pockets.

West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose, who rushed to the spot on Monday, February 12 and spoke with villagers, prepared a report card for the people, according to a statement issued by the Raj Bhavan.

“The villagers feel that it is imperative that the gang leaders be arrested, consider a judicial enquiry, provide ex-gratia assistance to the victims and take strict action against erring officials, particularly police,” the report card stated.

The politically connected strongman at the centre of the furore

Known to be a close aide of state minister for forests and renewable energy Jyoti Priya Mallick, Shahjahan’s name first surfaced on January 5 when the Enforcement Directorate went to search his house in connection with the alleged multi-crore ration distribution scam. Mallick was arrested in late October 2023 during the ongoing investigation into the alleged scam.

The central government agency officers were attacked by Shahjahan’s supporters and it was alleged that it was he who masterminded the attack. Since then, Shahjahan has been absconding. Although his lawyers recently approached a special Prevention of Money-laundering Act (PMLA) court to apply for interim bail for Shahjahan, the police have yet to arrest him.

With their back against the wall and anger brewing against Shahjahan and his aides, protests erupted last Thursday when some of Shahjahan’s supporters entered the village. They were chased away by the protesting villagers.

“Shahjahan and his henchmen ensured that not a single vote during any polls went to opposition parties. They resorted to massive rigging and booth capturing. Over the past few elections, be it Lok Sabha, assembly or panchayat most villagers didn’t get to vote,” a villager alleged.

A former trekker driver, Shahjahan’s rise over the past few years was meteoric. His uncle Moslem Sheikh was a panchayat leader. Shahjahan gradually turned into a strongman controlling fish farms in large areas in and around Sandeshkhali. He joined TMC in 2013 and became a close associate of Mallick.

West Bengal Police, however, issued a statement on Tuesday that neither an all-women 10-member fact-finding team led by the DIG of the Crime Investigation Department, nor a team of the state women's commission uncovered any allegations of sexual harassment of women. The National Commission for Women also didn't find any such allegations of sexual violence.

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