Sandeshkhali violence: Fire and smoke in a West Bengal village

A TMC leader and his two local aides have been facing accusations of sexual assault and land grab in Sandeshkhali in West Bengal. While the two aides have been arrested, the leader, Sheikh Shahjahan, is absconding.

February 24, 2024 02:02 am | Updated 02:24 pm IST

The police in Sandeshkhali along with the woman who filed a complaint of sexual assualt against two aides, Uttam Sardar and Shiboprasad Hazra, of the Trinamool leader Sheikh Shahjahan.

The police in Sandeshkhali along with the woman who filed a complaint of sexual assualt against two aides, Uttam Sardar and Shiboprasad Hazra, of the Trinamool leader Sheikh Shahjahan. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Two days before her house was attacked in the dead of night, a woman from Sandeshkhali, a village in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, had deposed before a magistrate accusing local leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress party of sexual assault at a nearby party office. On February 16, the woman, accompanied by four others from her village as well as police personnel, made the deposition under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which empowers a magistrate to record a person’s testimony or confession regardless of whether or not they have jurisdiction over the case. On reaching the Basirhat sub-divisional court, the woman also recorded a video saying that she had reached safely.

On the morning of February 18, however, she did not feel safe any longer. As she spoke to journalists in front of her house, she said, her voice trembling, “Look what they have done. Had I not gone into hiding last night, they would have killed me.” Pointing to the holes in the walls of her house built with bamboo and cane, she alleged that the ‘visitors’ of the previous night had identified themselves as the police, abused her father-in-law, and tried to break into the house.

When asked repeatedly about what she had endured, she threw up her hands in frustration. “How can I tell you,” she said in anguish. “They did bad things.”

The woman was referring to Uttam Sardar and Shiboprasad Hazra, two aides of Trinamool leader Sheikh Shahjahan, who is in the eye of a storm in the eastern State. These men are facing allegations of sexual harassment and land grab. While Sardar and Hazra have since been arrested, Shahjahan has been absconding. The allegations have caused a political storm with the Trinamool and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main Opposition party in the State, engaged in a fierce war of words.

The woman said her husband went to ask the men why they were torturing women. “They beat him up,” she said. “And ever since he protested, he has not been getting any work here.”

The woman alleged that she was sexually assaulted five months ago. Hazra and Sardar were present along with others at the Trinamool party office where the incident took place, she said.

Prawns and the pursuit of power

Sandeshkhali II block is a part of the Sundarbans, an area of mangroves in the delta formed by the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. Located about 100 kilometres south of the capital Kolkata, Sandeshkhali is one of the hundreds of islands in the delta. Here, over the years, single-crop agriculture has given way to bheries (shallow fish ponds) for prawn cultivation. The road to the ferry ghat of the island is dotted with bheries and brick kilns. The dark soil from the fields, now converted into agricultural ponds, is used in brick kilns.

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At the heart of the conflict that erupted in February are allegations of land grab. Today, political and economic power in Sandeshkhali stems from the control of bheries. Most of the villagers have alleged that their fisheries have been forcibly taken away by Shahjahan, Hazra, and Sardar.

Like many local strongmen in the Trinamool, Shahjahan, 42, rose to political prominence from humble beginnings. He was a driver and soon became the leader of a brick kiln union. He went on to control bheries and, consequently, the economy and the politics of the region.

Shahjahan owns many properties and hundreds of acres of land of which many were allegedly grabbed from the villagers. He seized a playground from a local organisation and locked the main gate, villagers allege; the place was subsequently named the ‘Sheikh Shahjahan Fan Club’. A market complex near his residence is named after him. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had once described him as “popular”. But Shahjahan was little known in political circles until January 5, when a team of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided his house in connection with a ration scam. A mob attacked the ED officers leaving three of them injured. Shahjahan ran away.

Conflict has often arisen around the power that comes from the control of land and area dominance. Movements against forcible land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, for instance, brought an end to the 34 year-long stint of the Left Front government. Sandeshkhali was the epicentre of the Tebhaga movement, among of the largest farmers’ movements, in the late 1940s.

“Since digging the soil for shallow fish ponds is costly, villagers leased their land out for a yearly sum of ₹10,000-₹12,000 per bigha. But most of the villagers have not been paid. Whenever someone has asked for money, they have been beaten up,” said Juthika Roy, a worker of the Integrated Child Development Services, a government programme for early childhood care and development. Juthika had come with a group of six women to the house of the complainant and had nudged her to report the attack on her house to the police. “If Shahjahan is not arrested, peace will not be restored here. Several of his aides are still roaming around,” she said.

The women of Sandeshkhali welcome the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, in North 24 Parganas.

The women of Sandeshkhali welcome the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, in North 24 Parganas. | Photo Credit: ANI

Ajanta Dey, joint secretary of the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society, said small land holders are not being allowed to own bheries and are being forced to work as labourers. “The region was not suitable for agriculture because of high salinity. That is why the fisheries sector began to thrive. In the 1980s, prawn cultivation began. The growing cost of such fisheries along with ecological changes are forcing people to give up bheries. And this is what powermongers are taking advantage of,” Dey said.

‘We have not got our dues’

Outside a school in Sandeshkhali, Krishna Bar looked for a piece of paper to lodge her complaint. “One bigha of land belonging to my father-in-law, Ishwar Chandra Bar, was taken on lease by Hazra and his men. For three years, we have not got any lease money,” she explained.

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Tapan Das started a cooperative of bheries along with other farmers. He said he had to pay ₹4,000 in 2022 for every bigha in the bheries where he was rearing prawn, to Hazra and Sardar. “I paid more than ₹1.20 lakh for the 28 bighas I cultivated. The Trinamool leaders told me that they would return the money through job cards (or cash transfers of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) but we have not received a single rupee,” he said.

Villagers alleged that they were ‘punished’ in various ways for refusing to give away their land and bheries. Some were not paid shop dues. Some others watched helplessly as their poultry was taken away or as fish was removed from their ponds. “There was no one to speak against Shahjahan and his aides. If you said something, you were targeted,” said a villager.

In an attempt to assuage the anger of the villagers, on February 18, the district administration set up grievance redressal camps in every school of Sandeshkhali. Each had separate counters to enlist complaints regarding agriculture, food supplies, and land. The district administration hired artists and drummers to encourage villagers to lodge their complaints at the booths. About 200 complaints were lodged on the first day. A majority of these were related to land grab. Many specified that they were not paid the promised lease money for the fisheries. Since agriculture is not a viable option and the bheries have been taken over by Trinamool leaders, the villagers claimed than more than one-fourth of the youth in Sandeshkhali had migrated to other regions for work and to move away from the conflict.

Even after January 5, when Shahjahan went into hiding, not much has changed for the villagers, they said. However, with every passing day, their voices have grown louder. They have been unrelenting in their demand that the Trinamool leaders return their dues and justice be served.

On February 7, a group of Trinamool supporters led by Sardar organised a rally, allegedly to threaten the villagers to fall in line. However, hundreds of villagers, mostly women, ran out of their homes with sticks and batons and chased the mob away. The properties of Sardar and Hazra, the local block president of Sandeshkhali, were attacked and set on fire. A poultry farm, a school under construction, and a three-storey Trinamool office were also not spared.

The political flashpoint

While the villagers alleged that they were beaten, not allowed to vote, and forced to close shops and businesses, it was their allegations of sexual assault that created national outrage.

It was when a woman from Sandeshkhali told a Bengali TV news channel that “their men would come down to see which households have beautiful, young women” that the floodgates opened. More women came forward and said that they were asked to visit the party office on the pretext of a meeting and made to wait there until night.

The Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, translated these allegations from Bengali to Hindi and conducted a press conference at the BJP headquarters in Delhi. Over the next few days, Sandeshkhali became a political flashpoint. The administration imposed prohibitory orders and prevented Opposition leaders from visiting certain areas.

The West Bengal police said that there was no specific complaint of sexual assault until a woman made a statement before the magistrate on February 15. On February 17, while addressing a press conference, the Director General of Police, Rajeev Kumar, said that there were attempts to give a “communal colour” to the incidents. He also demanded to know why there were no complaints before February 6 (the time when the protest by the villagers erupted when Sardar took out a rally).

“Even though there were attempts to paint the picture as Hindu women being targeted by Muslim leaders, such claims have not divided the people on the ground,” a senior police official said.

Several Central teams, including of the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, the National Commission for Women, and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes visited the village. Some of these quasi judicial bodies sought the imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal.

On February 20, the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, visited Sandeshkhali with permission from the Calcutta High Court. He received a rousing welcome. Now, the BJP has a new party office next to the closed and battered Trinamool office. Saffron flags fly everywhere and far outnumber the Trinamool colours of orange, white, green, and black, in Sandeshkhali.

New saffron flags have come up in Sandeshkhali after BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s visit to the region.

New saffron flags have come up in Sandeshkhali after BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s visit to the region. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Resentment in the air

Bhakta Das was not even 18 when he first waved the Trinamool Congress flag. He is president of booth number 117 of Sandeshkhali for the party. “Shiboprasad and his men owe me ₹1.33 lakh,” he said. “When I asked for the money, they threatened to break my leg. Why should we suffer such humiliation?”

Asthami Sardar, a Trinamool Panchayat Samithi member, said that the people should not resent the party because of the “misdeeds and the torture committed by a few.”

But Bhakta is not convinced. “Didi (Mamata Banerjee) should come and hear us,” he said.

Villagers of Sandeshkhali lodge a complaint with Asthami Sardar, a Trinamool member of the Panchayat Samithi.

Villagers of Sandeshkhali lodge a complaint with Asthami Sardar, a Trinamool member of the Panchayat Samithi. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Angry villagers did not spare Sukumar Mahato, the Sandeshkhali MLA, who visited the area 14 days after violence broke out. “Where were you all these days?” an angry farmer shouted, alleging that he had lost 6 bighas of land to Trinamool leaders. On February 22, the police and the MLA ensured that the gates of the ‘Sheikh Shahjahan Fan Club’ were opened to the public and the name of the absconding Trinamool leader was whitewashed and removed. Parts of Sandeshkhali, including Bermajur, remained on the boil, with hundreds of women coming out of their homes, raising allegations against Shahjahan and his men, and attacking properties and bheries of Trinamool leaders.

So far, more than 18 people have been arrested. They include two Trinamool leaders accused of sexual assault, more than 10 BJP workers, CPI(M) leader and former Sandeshkhali MLA Nirapada Sardar, and a television journalist who was later granted bail by the Calcutta High Court.

After Hazra’s arrest, villagers began distributing sweets to shopkeepers. Many people accepted the jalebis eagerly before the cameras.

A 46-year-old shopkeeper selling metal utensils and silver jewellery was angry. “During the panchayat elections last year, we were made to close shops. We were given sticks and batons and made to wait outside polling booths,” he said. The Trinamool Congress swept the panchayat polls in Sandeshkhali without any contest in 2023. The BJP workers who dared to contest were forced to flee the area and take shelter in Kolkata, said the villagers.

Customers, mostly women, were glued to the TV in the shop. “How dare he ask women alleging sexual assault to reveal their identity on live TV,” a woman said referring to the comments made by a Trinamool spokesperson. Asked about the allegations made by the women of Sandeshkhali, another said, “There is no smoke without fire.”

On February 21, Asthami Sardar tried to meet the complainant. She had been sent to Sandeshkhali to assuage the anger of the villagers. A police post has been set up near the woman’s house where six policemen stand guard. “She will not speak to anyone,” the woman’s father-in-law said.

The complainant was upset that red strings had been tied around her house. “It is only when someone dies that this is done. I don’t know why the police have tied them here,” she said. “Despite police protection, we are still living in fear.”

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