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Explained | What is happening in Sandeshkhali?

After the ED incident, local women in large numbers came out in the open and alleged that Shajahan and his men forcibly grabbed their land for prawn cultivation, torturing and sexually harassing them for several years.
Last Updated : 15 February 2024, 11:31 IST
Last Updated : 15 February 2024, 11:31 IST

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Kolkata: Sandeshkhali, a village in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, has been at the centre of a political storm for nearly a month and has witnessed unprecedented protests over allegations of sexual abuse by scores of women against a local TMC leader. 

How did it start?

It all started on a sleepy, cold morning of January 5 after a raid by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) at the residence of now absconding TMC strongman Shajahan Shiekh in Sandeshkhali in the multi-crore ration distribution scam.

Shajahan's men in the locality not only prevented the ED officers from entering his home but also assaulted them before the central probe agency's men managed to escape from the village around 74 km away from the city.

Considered the last word in Sandeshkhali in the Basirhat sub-division in the district, Shajahan, who is also a member of Zilla Parishad, has been at large since then, but his close associates claimed that he is "very much in control of things" in the area.

After the ED incident, local women in large numbers came out in the open and alleged that  Shajahan and his men forcibly grabbed their land for prawn cultivation, torturing and sexually harassing them for several years.

What are the main allegations? 

"Party (TMC) men would survey every home and if there was any beautiful woman, primarily a young wife or a girl, they would take them to the party office. They will keep that woman there night after night till they are satisfied," one of the several local women, who kept her face covered to hide her identity fearing attack by Shajahan and his associates, alleged.

The women said that the absence of Shajahan has given them the courage to speak about the torture they have been undergoing for several years.

They not only accused Shajahan but also alleged that his close aides and other TMC leaders Uttam Sardar and Shibaprasad Hazra were involved in the abuse.

"One might be the husband, but he will not have his rights on her. One would have to let go of his wife. We are unable to live here. There is always a fear of being tortured or sexual molestation. We want safety. Most of our men have left the village and are working in other states," she alleged.

Women protested with bamboo sticks, and brooms and gheraoed the local police stations demanding the immediate arrest of Shajahan, Shibaprasad Hazra.

Allegations led to protests and a political blame game

Tension escalated last Friday when the protesting women burnt down three poultry farms owned by Hazra, which they claimed were built on a piece of land forcibly grabbed from local villagers.

This led the opposition parties in Bengal to escalate their demands to arrest Shajahan and his men immediately.

The BJP, CP(IM), and the Congress alleged that the ruling TMC administration has been "giving protection" to Shajahan and his men, while some of the TMC leaders claimed that Shajahan was wrongfully framed by the opposition parties who have joined hands keeping in mind the ensuing Lok Sabha elections.

The protests of the women forced Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose earlier this week to cut short his Kerala trip to review the situation in Sandeshkhali. After talking to the women there, Bose described it as "ghastly, shocking, shattering"

"What I saw was ghastly, shocking, shattering to my senses. I saw something which I should never have seen; I heard many things which I should never have heard. This is a shame for a civil society," Bose said after his visit to Sandeshkhali.

Bose has also submitted a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs, blaming the law enforcers for working hand in glove with "rowdy elements" in Sandeshkhali.

In his report, Bose also mentioned that the local people want the Constitution of a Special Task Force or Special Investigation Team to probe into their allegations.

Reacting to these developments, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said those who were responsible have been put behind bars. The situation was being monitored closely and necessary steps were being taken, she had said.

Banerjee's statement came on the day when Bose went to Sandeshkhali and reviewed the law and order situation there.

Police action and visits by commissions

Police arrested former CPI(M) MLA from Sandeshkhali Nirapada Sardar, and a local BJP leader Vikas Singh over the allegations.

Barishat Police on Monday said that they have received only four complaints from the people of violence-hit Sandeshkhali but none of them mentioned any incident of rape or sexual harassment.

The police had imposed prohibitory orders in Sandeshkhali and on Tuesday opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari and other BJP leaders were stopped in the city's Science City when they tried to go to Sandeshkhali.

On Wednesday, his party colleague and BJP's West Bengal President Sukanta Majumdar was injured as party workers clashed with the police after they were stopped from entering Sandeshkhali.

Majumdar is undergoing treatment at a city-based hospital.

A team of the state Women's Commission visited Sandeshkhali on Monday, spoke to the local women, and submitted a report to the Chief Minister's Office (CMO).

The state administration has constituted a 10-member team under senior IPS officers to probe into the incidents of Sandeshkhali.

Representatives of the National Women’s Commission and National Commission for Scheduled Castes tried going to Sandeshkhali have also faced hindrances from the police who cited the prohibitory orders, stating that their visits might cause a law and order problem in the area.

A National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) delegation visited the trouble-torn village on Thursday.

Led by the panel's Chairman Arun Halder, the team spoke to residents of the area, which is predominantly inhabited by people belonging to SC and other backward communities.

Meanwhile, the police have set up barricades on approach roads to Sandeshkhali police to prevent political personalities from visiting the place.

Protests and allegations prompted Calcutta HC to react

Earlier this week, the Calcutta High Court revoked the imposition of Section 144 in trouble-torn Sandeshkhali saying that the state administration usually identifies disturbed areas and imposes prohibitory orders in specific zones. It also said the state should deploy more security forces and there should be close monitoring through drones and CCTV cameras.

Another Calcutta High Court Judge Justice Apurba Sinha Ray on Tuesday took suo motu cognisance of the allegations of the local women being sexually harassed and tribal land forcibly taken away and instructed the state to file a report within a week.

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Published 15 February 2024, 11:31 IST

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