Women of Sandeshkhali rise up against Trinamool leaders, putting Mamata government in a tight spot

The powerful protest against years of harassment, land-grab, and oppression at the hands of local TMC leaders has stirred a national political debate.  

Published : Mar 05, 2024 19:48 IST - 16 MINS READ

On February 25, the women on the island of Sandeshkhali demanded the arrest of local Trinamool leaders after allegations surfaced of their excesses and harassment tactics.

On February 25, the women on the island of Sandeshkhali demanded the arrest of local Trinamool leaders after allegations surfaced of their excesses and harassment tactics. | Photo Credit: PTI 

On February 22, a palpable tension filled the air in Sandeshkhali. For the past two weeks, the picturesque little island at the mouth of the Sundarbans in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district has been in the midst of a sociopolitical upheaval unseen in the State in the last 50 years. Alleging years of oppression, sexual offences, and harassment, the women of Sandeshkhali turned against the local representatives of the ruling Trinamool Congress: Sheikh Shahjahan and his henchmen. Two of Shahjahan’s closest aides, Uttam Sardar and Shibprasad Hazra, were arrested on February 10 and 17 respectively, but Shahjahan, subsequently arrested, was in hiding when this reporter visited the island on February 22.

“Shibu [Hazra] and Uttam [Sardar] may not be here now, but the main villain, Shahjahan, is still out there. The police are not catching him. We are protesting during the day, but our nights are full of fear because these people are like demons who come by night. They bang on the doors and demand that we step outside. Many of our menfolk have been forced to leave to protect themselves. The women have to stay with the children. When the government catches Shahjahan, we will have some peace of mind,” a woman actively involved in the movement in Sandeshkhali told Frontline.

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On February 29, Shahjahan was arrested, and Sandeshkhali broke out in celebration. The villagers burst crackers and symbolically distributed pithe, a Bengali sweet dish.

Immediately after his arrest, Shahjahan was suspended from the Trinamool for six years. According to reports, more than 40 cases are pending against him over the past four years. On March 5, the Calcutta High Court ordered the government to transfer the case involving the attack on Enforcement Directorate officers in Sandeshkhali, allegedly planned by Shahjahan, on January 5 to the CBI. However, the government moved the Supreme Court against the order.

Shahjahan is known in the region as Betaaj Badshah, or uncrowned king. He went on the run on January 5, after orchestrating an attack on Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials who had come to search his house in connection with the multi-crore public distribution system scam (“Now, PDS scam in Bengal”, Frontline, February 9).

Frontline’s Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay speaks to residents and protesters in Sandeshkhali. | Video Credit: Reporting by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Edited by Abhinav Chakraborty and Sambavi Parthasarathy

On February 7, Shahjahan’s local supporters, in an attempt to retain their stranglehold on the region, brought in armed goons from outside to bully the villagers into submission. That is when the women rose up in anger. They drove the goons out and went on a rampage against local Trinamool leaders, ransacking their homes, burning their sheds, and destroying their businesses.

Hazra and Sardar, allegedly the main men responsible for oppressing the villagers, faced the brunt of their fury. They were accused of working on behalf of Shahjahan, harassing women, forcibly taking away land and money from villagers, converting farmland into bheries (fish tanks) for their personal fisheries business, extorting money and services, and denying people the benefits of the various government schemes.

Besides alleging sexual harassment, the women said they had completely lost their liberty. Their lives were forfeited to the whims of Shahjahan and his henchmen. “They would come to our homes in the middle of the night and demand that the women step out to make pithe for them and do other jobs. We were at their beck and call. They would suddenly summon us to the party office in the dead of night to make us work. They did not care if we had household problems or if our children were ill. If we resisted, they beat us up or took it out on our husbands. Uttam and Shibu were the lackeys; Shahjahan has to be put behind bars for our peace of mind,” a woman told Frontline.

Poultry and fish farms, built on land that was allegedly forcibly taken over by a Trinamool worker and his aide, were set on fire by villagers in Sandeshkhali on February 23.

Poultry and fish farms, built on land that was allegedly forcibly taken over by a Trinamool worker and his aide, were set on fire by villagers in Sandeshkhali on February 23. | Photo Credit: SHYAMAL MAITRA/ANI

Shahjahan, known for his strong-arm electioneering methods, was untraceable for nearly two months after the attack on ED officials, which sparked allegations that the State government was dragging its feet. On February 25, in the face of mounting criticism from all quarters, Trinamool MP and party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee cited the Calcutta High Court’s stay order on an appeal made by the ED and claimed that it was not the State government but the High Court that was shielding Shahjahan.

The very next day, however, the High Court clarified that there was no stay order on the arrest of Shahjahan. “The division bench only stayed the Special Investigating Team probe, comprising members of the CBI and [the] State police,” a bench of Chief Justice T.S. Sivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharyya said on February 26.

Rural women’s protest

This is the first time that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government is facing an agitation led by rural women against what they are calling a reign of terror unleashed by members of her party. The episode has exposed the failure of the government to control its party functionaries and the local administration’s failure to protect the people of the region.

For weeks, Sandeshkhali has been in the midst of a sociopolitical upheaval unseen in the State in the last 50 years.

For weeks, Sandeshkhali has been in the midst of a sociopolitical upheaval unseen in the State in the last 50 years. | Photo Credit: PTI 

The allegations of sexual offences, physical attacks, and social harrassment levelled against Shahjahan and his henchmen have sent shock waves across the country and put a remote village in south Bengal at the centre of national politics as a symbol of resistance by women against the excesses of powerful local politicians.

At a press conference in New Delhi, Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, and Minority Affairs, read out excerpts of some of the allegations the Sandeshkhali women had made: “Trinamool people will come and check out which house has a young and pretty wife.” In another note, a woman claimed that the miscreants had told the husband of one of the victims: “You can be the husband, but you have no rights.”

A Trinamool Congress flag flies inside a bheri (fishing pond). Local Trinamool leaders are accused of forcibly capturing these bheries from the villagers.

A Trinamool Congress flag flies inside a bheri (fishing pond). Local Trinamool leaders are accused of forcibly capturing these bheries from the villagers. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI 

The developments at Sandeshkhali are seen as a major blow to the Trinamool ahead of the Lok Sabha election, particularly since Mamata Banerjee takes enormous pride in her government’s efforts to uplift the socio-economic condition of poor women in the State. And because Mamata as a woman Chief Minister was widely expected to protect the women in her State.

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground says otherwise. An elderly woman, standing beside what used to be her pond at Sandeshkhali, pointed out wryly that on the island it was more convenient for a woman to be old than to be young. “The older women are spared the ignominy and harassment that young girls have to endure. I guess old women like me were never approached in the middle of the night to make pithe for them, because they thought us undesirable,” she said.

According to her, the men in the village, too, suffered at the hands of local Trinamool leaders. “They broke my son’s arm because he was unwilling to work for them. They seized my pond and pumped out the water into one of their bheries. There were so many fish in it. I did not get a single paisa.”

In a region where the fisheries business is far more lucrative than agriculture, many villagers alleged that Shahjahan and his men had seized their land and ponds. Satya Das (named changed) claimed that Hazra and Sardar had taken a sizeable portion of his family’s land even though he is a Trinamool activist. In fact, even the double-storeyed Trinamool party office is said to have been built on farmland forcibly acquired by local party workers.

Corruption and high-handedness

Corruption at the village level and the high-handedness of local leaders have become characteristics of the Trinamool’s rule in rural Bengal. They hark back to the tales of misrule reported against party workers of previous governments in earlier decades. While sporadic protests have occurred in the past (the agitation against “cut money” in 2019 and the protest against the ration scam in 2020), they pale in comparison to the sustained agitation by the women of Sandeshkhali.

Significantly, what started off as a protest against sexual harassment has now snowballed into a full-fledged movement that embraces within its fold all the other issues that have been plaguing the Sandeshkhali community as a whole: land grab, extortion, terror, misutilisation of Central and State funds, and so on.

According to the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, Sandeshkhali is a “microcosm of all the vices of the Trinamool government”. Speaking to Frontline, he said: “Sandeshkhali reflects the nature of the current regime in Bengal. While corruption and electoral malpractice have practically become institutionalised here, Sandeshkhali has also brought to the fore the issue of the dignity and security of women, and the impact of this is spreading like wildfire in Bengal society.”

If the initial anger of the women was directed against Shahjahan, Hazra, and Sardar, it was not long before it turned to other Trinamool leaders and panchayat members. “One cannot find a single Trinamool neta who is innocent in Sandeshkhali. All of them have oppressed women and seized lands. There is no other party here except the Trinamool. And they have had their way for so long that now finally people are fed up with them. They used to take money from us and not return it,” said Jayanta Das, a small businessman of Kandar Para in Sandeshkhali. As proof, he showed a document that indicated that Uttam Sardar had bought goods worth Rs.13,560 from his shop on October 13, 2018. “He has not paid the money for it. Nobody has the guts to ask them for money,” said Das.

Sheikh Shahjahan, the Trinamool leader accused of sexual violence and land grabbing in Sandeshkhali village, being produced at the Basirhat court in North 24 Parganas on February 29.

Sheikh Shahjahan, the Trinamool leader accused of sexual violence and land grabbing in Sandeshkhali village, being produced at the Basirhat court in North 24 Parganas on February 29. | Photo Credit: PTI

The anger of the villagers was directed at those who worked on Shahjahan’s orders, and one after another, they gutted their places of business and attacked their homes. This extended to influential leaders, including Shahjahan’s brother Sirajuddin, gram panchayat member Shankar Sardar, Ajit Maity, and others, who the people said had exploited them and robbed them of their land and money.

Forced to take action against the erring party functionaries, the Trinamool has removed some of them from their posts, suspended others, and arrested a few. The police appealed to the people to exercise restraint; DGP Rajeev Kumar made two visits to the island in quick succession. Top Trinamool leaders and Ministers visited Sandeshkhali to foster peace and harmony, but the villagers’ anger remained unabated.

“Where was the law when we needed protection?” was their question to the police’s appeal, even as they raised “go back” slogans to Trinamool leaders from Kolkata. To make matters worse, a number of villagers were arrested and cases were filed against many more in connection with the arson and violence at Sandeshkhali.

Damage control

As the protest continued, it began to transcend the immediate concerns of the villagers to include broader issues relating to injustice and democracy. The women condemned the manner in which the representatives of opposition parties were prevented from coming to Sandeshkhali. They also expressed their solidarity with Santu Pan, a reporter from a private news channel who was arrested while reporting live on the atrocities in the region. Pan was arrested for allegedly outraging the modesty of a woman. She filed a police complaint that Pan had barged into her house and filmed her when she was not properly dressed.

Speaking to Frontline about the arrest, one of the protesting women said on February 22: “Santu Pan was framed for exposing the true situation in Sandeshkhali. For so long the police could not arrest those who have been torturing us, but they lost no time in putting Santu behind bars. The police could not arrest Shahjahan, the main culprit behind every wrong deed here, but instead they arrested a person who was trying to fight for us. If we felt safe, would we be hiding our faces behind veils? If they can arrest a mediaperson, imagine what they can do to us? Shahjahan’s henchmen are threatening us, saying they will cut us into little pieces. When opposition leaders come, their movements are observed by drones. Why can’t the government use drones to find out where Shahjahan is hiding?”

The women also claimed that the police would not accept their complaints and instead direct them to take their problems to Shahjahan, the source of the problem.

The protest has now precipitated a flurry of administrative and police activities. Redressal camps have been set up and complaints that had found no outlet for years have come flooding forth. In just two days, 400 cases were filed with the Land and Land Reforms Department. By February 29, the day Shahjahan was arrested, at least 150 villagers had got their lands back.

But it is not just fear and anger that is stalking Sandeshkhali but hurt and disappointment too. Some influential voices from the top Trinamool leadership dismissed the grievances of the women as “staged gimmicks”. In a television news programme attended by representatives of the women of Sandeshkhali, Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh went to the extent of asking them to raise their hands if they had been raped.

Locket Chatterjee, BJP MP and West Bengal State general secretary, was stopped by police personnel when she was on her way to Sandeshkhali on February 23.

Locket Chatterjee, BJP MP and West Bengal State general secretary, was stopped by police personnel when she was on her way to Sandeshkhali on February 23. | Photo Credit: SAIKAT PAUL/ANI 

Trinamool MLA Narayan Goswami expressed doubts about whether the protesters claiming to be victims were tribal women from Sandeshkhali. “A tribal woman can be identified by the way she is built and her complexion... but the women who have come in front of the camera are all fair. So are they Scheduled Tribe? This question remains,” Goswami said.

Such humiliation and slights have only served to intensify the women’s agitation, while making them sensitive to questions too. On being asked whether all the allegations they made were true, one of the women snapped: “Why are you asking that? Why would I say it if it was not true. The ruling party should come and stay here, then they will know if it is truth or lies. I am a victim myself, as are my neighbours. They would come at night and say there is a meeting and we have to attend. There, they would make us work and cook food while they enjoyed themselves. It was not uncommon for them to molest women. Many women do not want to come forward out of embarrassment. Can our dignity be so easily bought that we will make up allegations? Will any woman lie about being harassed or molested? Those who gave testimony, did they lie? Many of our men have been hospitalised because they tried to defend us.”

Importantly, however, the women’s rejection of the local Trinamool leadership does not mean that they have endorsed the BJP’s persistent attempts to give the protest a communal slant.

At a press conference, Irani said: “...that she [Mamata Banerjee] will now allow her men to pick out Hindu young, married women to be raped night after night in the TMC office.” Speaking on the incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Today the people of Bengal are asking the Chief Minister, ‘Are some people’s votes more important to you than the suffering of women at Sandeshkhali?’”

However, the Sandeshkhali women maintained that the issue was not a communal one, but a criminal one. “We do not have any problems with the Muslims here. Our anger is against Shahjahan and his people, not against Muslims. Uttam and Shibu, who used to torture us, are not Muslims,” said a woman.

Political issue

For the Mamata government, which has always claimed that it will prioritise women’s welfare and security above everything else, the Sandeshkhali incident will be difficult to live down. In fact, with the BJP trying to make it into a national issue, it has already become a campaign issue for the upcoming election, and Sandeshkhali is suddenly the destination for all national political parties.

Also Read | Blow for Trinamool Congress in West Bengal as Minister arrested in Rs.10,000 crore PDS scam

The island’s name was frequently on Modi’s lips when he kick-started BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign in Bengal from Arambag on March 1. “What Trinamool, which talks of Maa Maati Maanush [Mother, Land, Humanity, which is Trinamool’s political slogan], has done with the sisters of Sandeshkhali has made the whole country sad. Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s spirit, wherever it is now, is extremely sad with what the Trinamool has done at Sandeshkhali. When the women of Sandeshkhali protested and asked for Mamata Didi’s help, the Chief Minister Didi and the State government put their entire power behind protecting the Trinamool leader who was harassing the women.... Will you forgive Trinamool? Every hurt will be answered by a vote,” said Modi. He also lashed out at the INDIA bloc, alleging that its members had chosen to ignore Sandeshkhali for their political convenience.

Villagers celebrate following the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan on February 29.

Villagers celebrate following the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan on February 29. | Photo Credit: PTI

Many political observers, including election strategist Prashant Kishor, who played a key role in Trinamool’s huge victory over the BJP in the 2021 Assembly election in Bengal, are certain that Sandeshkhali is bound to not only impact West Bengal’s electoral politics but also be a factor in national politics. “When issues like Sandeshkhali take place, no matter what you claim, the ruling party will suffer a setback. But with or without Sandeshkhali, the BJP has been on an upsurge in Bengal... and with the increasing anti-incumbency sentiment against the TMC, the party will find it increasingly difficult to defend its territory,” Kishor said in a news programme.

Veteran political observer Biswajit Bhattacharya pointed out that the Sandeshkhali revolt would be a particularly difficult blow to Mamata, as one of her proudest political claims was that the women of Bengal were always with her. “We see not just a public protest against Trinamool’s local muscle power, but also one led by women. This resistance puts paid to the State’s claim of being one of the safest places for women in the country. If this movement sparks off similar protests, it may cost the Trinamool dearly in the coming election. At the same time, the manner in which people have been coming forward to the redressal camps with their complaints indicates that they have not totally lost faith in the administration yet,” said Bhattacharya.

Significantly, in the early days of the protest, when the matter was just coming to a simmer, Mamata had announced in the State Budget that she would double the amount for the Lakshmi Bhandar (an income support scheme for women) to Rs.1,000 a month for the general category and Rs.1,200 for SCs and STs. However, even this popular scheme was not enough to sway the women of Sandeshkhali. “The government gives us a little money with one hand, but the Trinamool party people take away a lot more with the other hand,” a woman of Sandeshkhali said.

Shahjahan’s arrest may have come as a huge relief for the villagers, but their protest might continue. “There are many like his brother Sirajuddin, Siddiq Mollah, and others who are still walking free. We have named all of them in our complaints. We will continue to protest until they are also behind bars,” said a woman amidst the celebrations at Sandeshkhali.

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