Sandeshkhali, the untold story

Sandeshkhali is an apt example of franchisee politics, told through two compelling and powerful narratives

March 05, 2024 12:57 am | Updated 08:17 am IST

‘Sandeshkhali quintessentially reflects the crisis of a model of governance’

‘Sandeshkhali quintessentially reflects the crisis of a model of governance’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

There are two routes to Sandeshkhali in West Bengal. One takes you through a Hindu-Muslim divide. The other through the acquisition-deprivation divide. Both stories are compelling and powerful.

In the first story, the name of the villain is Trinamool leader Sheikh Shahjahan, and the victims are the Hindu women. The story fits into the long tale of Muslim attacks on the hapless Hindu whenever and wherever the Hindu is weak or in a minority, be it in Bangladesh, Pakistan or places such as Sandeshkhali. The strength of this story reinforces a sweeping narrative that has gained traction in West Bengal in recent years, restoring the festering wounds of Partition. The problem is that in Sandeshkhali the story is not only partial but also false. The immediate perpetrators of alleged crimes against women here are Uttam Sardar and Shibaprasad Hazra, both non-Muslims. The third is Ajit Maity, whom the villagers of Sandeshkhali attacked last week.

Under public pressure, Mamata Banerjee’s police arrested all three men, though Sheikh was absconding. That he had been spared for so long helped to feed the allegation of Ms. Banerjee’s Muslim ‘appeasement’ with an eye to the forthcoming elections. Hindus are all but in ‘minority’ in both Sandeshkhali blocks: 70% in one and 77% in the other, mostly belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

A crisis of governance

Rather than a Hindu-Muslim strife, Sandeshkhali quintessentially reflects the crisis of Mamata Banerjee’s model of governance. Unlike in many other States where people form collectives around caste, tribal, linguistic or religious identities, in West Bengal’s post-Partition strife for life and livelihood, people clung to different political parties for both protection and provisions.

During the long rule of the Left Front, due to the well-coordinated structure of the hegemonic CPI(M), partisan affiliations of individuals and groups got further reinforced in offering the master key to enter public life. Party affiliation gave people an identity which, in turn, created a fusion called party-society. In the twilight years of the Left Front, the educated middle class party leaders were slowly but steadily getting replaced at the grassroots by enterprising individuals representing either relatively well-off farmers or those running small trade and businesses. With the Left Front’s defeat, the most ambitious of these local political managers changed sides and joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Ms. Banerjee realised early on that although she had to work with party society, she could not run a government the CPI(M) way. In her party, she alone drew universal authority without any stable hierarchy of command. She compensated for this in a three-pronged manner. She brought some key bureaucrats and police officers, irrespective of their rankings, under her direct command and placed her faith in them over party workers. She befriended ethnic, caste and religious community leaders, and inducted them in the party. Moreover, she extended protection to the local party chieftains to expand their dubious businesses in lieu of complete personal loyalty. These enterprising political managers were quick to leverage their political power — in cahoots with the local administration and police — for usurping as much profit as possible from legal and illegal businesses involving land, forest, sand, coal, fisheries, foodgrains and siphoning off cash from various government schemes and contracts. Most of these people are from relatively rich peasant households who earlier lost land due to the Left Front’s land reforms but eventually were positioned in places of power — first in the CPI(M) and thereafter in the TMC.

With West Bengal’s steady industrial decline, these enterprising individuals are now the main employers in the informal economy. Such a combination of power and profit has created cronyism of small capital in West Bengal’s vast swaths of rural and semi-urban settlements. These micro-appropriators and also political leaders cash in on Ms. Banerjee’s popularity for running personal fiefdoms. They eliminate all possible challenges to their local power and prosperity, routinely forcing Opposition parties to withdraw their candidates in the panchayat elections.

The TMC embodies such a two-way flow of might and money spread over ‘leased out’ zones of control and command to its key players. Note, the structure primarily stands on absolute material gains and uses people’s vague faith in Didi’s ‘good intentions’ as its moral hinge. In a long essay, I have called it ‘franchisee politics’ (“Of Collaboration and Conflict: Mamata Banerjee and the Making of ‘Franchisee Politics’ in West Bengal”, Economic & Political Weekly (EPW), September 9, 2023).

The essence of Sandeshkhali

Sandeshkhali is an apt example of franchisee politics. The crisis sparked off when the Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers went to Sheikh Shahjahan’s house. They were attacked by the locals. Even journalists were not spared. For the locals, Sheikh is a patron-provider of their livelihood. Sheikh’s name surfaced during an investigation of a Public Distribution System (PDS) scam in which a large amount of foodgrains was allegedly siphoned off to the open market. In October, the ED arrested Jyotipriya Mallick, former Minister of Food and Supplies in Ms. Banerjee’s government. Sheikh reported to him. While Mallick ran his fiefdom over North 24 Parganas district, he ‘sub let’ the two blocks of Sandeshkhali to his deputy Sheikh, who, in turn, ‘sub let’ Sandeshkhali Block-II to Shibu Hazra. Hazra ‘sub let’ Sandeshkhali Gram Panchayat to Uttam Sardar. A clear chain of profit and power was drawn, which constitutes the lifeblood of the TMC.

When the chain snapped

Why did the chain snap? It snapped because the equation flipped with Mallick’s arrest and Sheikh’s absence from the scene. As the media focused on Sandeshkhali, the locals found enough courage to open their mouths. They made two specific allegations: that the TMC leaders like Hazra and Sardar illegally seized their farmland and turned them into private fisheries without any compensation. And the TMC workers routinely called women from the village to the party office late in the night and sexually abused them. The first is a classic case of the reversal of land reforms in which the Left Front in the late 1970s and early 1980s had distributed privately held agricultural land above a fixed amount among the landless and the land-poor peasants. The second is a typical demonstration of monstrous masculine power by activists of a political party bereft of any binding ideological-moral discipline.

Predictably, the TMC now attempts to distance itself from the Sheikh, Hazra and Sardar. And the Bharatiya Janata Party is on an overdrive to paint it as exploitation of Hindu women by Muslim goons. With the party’s massive occupation of the Opposition space in Bengal today, it may find fertile ground to further polarise the turf in the days ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Yet, the untold story of Sandeshkhali is one of the usurpation of absolute power to misappropriate property from the poor in a reversal of land reforms and rejection of local democracy by an emergent class of rural rich, pampered and promoted by the Trinamool Congress.

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya is Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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