In Sandeshkhali protests, message for Mamata, TMC - Hindustan Times

In Sandeshkhali protests, message for Mamata, TMC

Feb 26, 2024 09:44 PM IST

Justice must be seen to be done because everyone knows that Shahjahan was operating with the collusion of the local administration and party hierarchy.

Protests boiled over in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali earlier this month, blowing the lid off a dark web of alleged sexual exploitation, extensive landgrab, intimidation and violence perpetrated by Sheikh Shahjahan, a local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader, with a feral gang of extreme malcontents.

Fresh protests erupt in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali on Thursday. (ANI) PREMIUM
Fresh protests erupt in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali on Thursday. (ANI)

Let’s rewind. Sandeshkhali is an area in North 24 Parganas district not far from both the Sundarbans Reserve Forest and Kolkata. On February 8, women hit the streets in Sandeshkhali protesting against the extreme indignities and exploitation they had been allegedly subjected to for a decade or so by Shahjahan and his associates — Shibaprasad Hazra, Uttam Sardar and Sirajuddin, Shahjahan’s brother.

This show of force snowballed into a significant popular movement, forcing the government to act. Hazra and Sardar have been arrested, as have a couple of local Opposition leaders for fanning the fires. Though the administration is now in full damage-limitation mode, Shahjahan and Sirajuddin remain at large.

On February 22, Sandeshkhali residents liberated a children’s park taken over by the gang. They also chased away Sirajuddin and his thugs after they’d set fire to a house and in retaliation razed two structures on a property expropriated by them. And, on February 23, they vandalised local TMC leader Ajit Maiti’s house and roughed him up.

The official response was significant. On February 22, MLA Sukumar Mahato and the superintendent of police, North 24 Parganas, arrived at the spot to show support, clearly way behind the curve. The next day, the director-general of police and additional director-general of police (South Bengal) went to Sandeshkhali and promised residents their grievances would be dealt with, but they should not take matters into their own hands, while Maiti was told that action would be taken against him if he was found guilty of involvement in Shahjahan’s depredations. Police complicity is obviously a big issue; they’ll have to go the extra mile to prove things have changed. Putting Shahjahan and Sirajuddin behind bars without delay will be a crucial step.

Politics has taken over, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Left leaders visiting the area after a judicial order allowed them to do so. The substance and inanity of the political rhetoric need not detain us, given it’s very clearly in the same old frame; it is the considerable significance of what clearly began as a spontaneous act of popular resistance that bears close scrutiny.

In a flash of political simultaneity, the day the women hit the streets in Sandeshkhali, the state budget was tabled, rolling out, among other things, an increase in the amount paid under the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme, under which all women are compensated for unremunerated domestic work. Lakshmir Bhandar, like the groundbreaking Kanyashree scheme to encourage girls' education, has gained for West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee a near-messianic following among women. Fourteen subsidy schemes are designed either entirely for women or for both men and them. Women are possibly an even more consequential constituency for her and the TMC than the minorities.

The question is will the Sandeshkhali movement disillusion women so radically that they will not remain the almost unfractured constituency for Banerjee and her party anymore. It’s unlikely, but spatial and temporal issues are involved, alongside class.

First, Sandeshkhali’s impact on voting, specifically, is unlikely to transcend the limited area of Kolkata and neighbouring districts of North and South 24 Parganas (which, closely enmeshed geographically, culturally and economically, were created by bifurcating 24 Parganas district on March 1, 1980). But general perceptions, not to be dismissed in any reckoning, are likely to be affected statewide.

Second, even in the areas most affected, whether the Sandeshkhali effect will linger or not will depend on how substantively the Trinamool government responds to the grievances aired, not just in terms of the allegations of sexual depredations but also the land grab and consequent loss of villagers’ livelihoods. The response must be political and administrative to be truly convincing.

In other words, the administration must dismantle the entire Shahjahan operation without any quarter given, while the party has to purge its organisation in the area and make reparations to the people. In effect, this will mean further arrests and fast-track judicial proceedings on the one hand and, on the other, the return of all the lands allegedly seized by Shahjahan and his associates, including those converted to bheris (ponds for pisciculture). The seizure of all properties for further reparations to the extent legally permissible would be a laudably cautionary move.

Justice must be seen to be done, especially because everyone knows that Shahjahan was operating with the collusion of the local police, administration and party hierarchy.

Beyond the immediate area, I would argue that the impact will mainly be reputational, which will obviously have both long-term political and immediate-term electoral repercussions. Banerjee will be well aware that gender and land are powerfully emotive issues that are densely woven into her politics. She cannot afford to suffer public relations damage on these fronts. But how far genuine action will follow, given Shahjahan had been allowed a free run for so long, remains a moot question. There’s also the fact that whatever action has been undertaken has been reactive, following events that have spun progressively out of control.

The BJP, the main Opposition party, has been proactive, to be sure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to hit the campaign trail in Bengal in March, addressing meetings including in the Barasat constituency, part of the general area. But that could possibly not be Banerjee’s principal concern.

What will be more important will be to do what is morally and politically correct, so that women will continue to be able to tell women that Didi has their backs.

Suhit K Sen is an author and political commentator based in Kolkata. The views expressed are personal

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