The death of Lalan Sheikh, the main accused in the Rampurhat massacre case, when he was in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has stirred up a major political storm in West Bengal. On December 12, Lalan Sheikh’s body was found hanging in the toilet of a CBI camp office in Rampurhat, Birbhum district. While the CBI claimed it was suicide, Sheikh’s family members insist that he was murdered while in custody.
The custodial death has come as a major loss of face for the CBI. At a time when the Trinamool Congress is getting cornered by Central agencies in multiple corruption cases, Lalan Sheikh’s death comes as an opportunity to strike back at the CBI and the BJP at the Centre.
On March 21, a mob led by Lalan Sheikh set ablaze several houses in Bogtui village in the Rampurhat region, and 10 people, including a child, were burnt alive. The arson was in retaliation to the murder of Bhadu Sheikh, a deputy panchayat pradhan, earlier that day. Both Bhadu Sheikh and Lalan Sheikh were members of the ruling party, though they belonged to opposite camps. The Calcutta High Court ordered the CBI to take over the massacre case on March 25 from the State government-appointed Special Investigation Team. On April 8, it directed the agency to investigate the murder of Bhadu Sheikh also.
Twenty-one people have been arrested in connection with the massacre. The main accused, Lalan Sheikh, however, managed to give the authorities the slip and was finally apprehended in Jharkhand on December 3.
When Sheikh’s body was discovered in the toilet in the CBI camp, pictures showed him in his underwear, hanging with a towel wrapped around his neck and his feet touching the ground. His wife, Reshma Bibi, alleged that he was tortured by the CBI personnel and then murdered. She claimed that on the day he died, Sheikh was brought to his house in Bogtui village, apparently to recover a hard disk. In her complaint to the Rampurhat police, Reshma Bibi wrote that Sheikh was subjected to severe “mental pressure” and “physical torture” and referred to his death as a “murder”.
She also accused the CBI of demanding a bribe of Rs.50 lakh from her in return for “saving them from the case”. She named seven CBI officials in her complaint, including one of DIG rank and another of SP rank. She also demanded a probe by the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department (CID). “They beat up and tortured my husband in an effort to force him to mention some big names. By forcing him to lie, they wanted to involve some big names in the case,” she wrote in her complaint. She claimed that her husband himself had told her all this when he was being taken from CBI custody to the court for the first time.
Sheikh’s death and Reshma Bibi’s allegations sparked off violent protests outside the CBI camp office at Rampurhat. Members of Sheikh’s family, joined by a section of villagers from Bogtui, demanded that action be taken against the CBI official responsible for the death. They burnt tyres on the national highway leading to Bogtui village and tried to force their way into the CBI camp office.
Soon after Reshma Bibi’s allegations, the State government ordered the CID to investigate the case. On December 14, the Calcutta High Court allowed the CID to investigate the custodial death even though the CBI had moved the court earlier requesting that the case be transferred to an “independent body” outside the control of the State government. Earlier, on December 13, a public interest litigation petition moved in the Calcutta High Court sought an inquiry into the case by a High Court judge.
Though the High Court allowed a CID probe, it nevertheless raised questions regarding some of the allegations made by Reshma Bibi and directed the CID not to take coercive steps against the CBI officials mentioned in her complaint. In his order, Justice Jay Sengupta said: “It is uncanny indeed to see the names of the investigating officers of other high-profile cases being taken as names of accused in the present case. Even high-ranking officers of the CBI, like a DIG, have been named there, in a rather far-fetched manner.” The court also ordered that the investigation be videographed and that the final report should be filed only after getting the court’s permission.
CBI’s loss of face
The Trinamool Congress has over the last few months been reeling under allegations of corruption and finds itself cornered by the arrest of several top leaders by Central agencies. While the ruling party has maintained that the Central agencies are being used by the Union government to harass its political opponents, Sheikh’s death has given the Trinamool an opportunity to train its guns on the CBI itself. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “I condemn the incident. And if the CBI is so smart, then why is he dead? It took place in their custody. The CBI has to provide details. His wife lodged an FIR; we will also raise the issue.”
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress also voiced their concern about Sheikh’s death and demanded a judicial inquiry. Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty pointed out that such deaths in CBI custody would naturally raise questions whether it was a conspiracy or not. “In this situation there can be no alternative to a judicial inquiry. But the CBI will also have to answer and cannot avoid responsibility. Whether he was guilty or not, a death in custody cannot be accepted,” he said.
Soon after the incident, Ajay Bhatnagar, Additional Director of the CBI, arrived in Kolkata and made enquiries on the events leading to Sheikh’s death. One of the questions that is repeatedly asked is how his body was discovered with its feet touching the ground.
War of words
The death sparked off a fresh war of words between the Trinamool and the BJP. Kunal Ghosh, Trinamool’s State general secretary and spokesperson, said: “There are many able officers in the CBI, but we suspect that the organisation is being used for political gains. The death of Lalan Sheikh is extremely important and we demand a proper and impartial investigation.” Referring to an earlier statement by Suvendu Adhikari, Leader of the Opposition, in the Assembly, that December 12, 14, and 21 will be “significant dates” in West Bengal, Ghosh asked: “Did Suvendu Adhikari mark December 12 for this event?”
Responding to the allegation, Samik Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s BJP spokesperson, countered: “It can easily be figured who gains with the death of Lalan Sheikh. We got to know from media reports that Sheikh was cooperating with the investigation. His death at an important time like this is mysterious. Why and how it happened; and who is responsible for it, only the court and the CBI can tell.”
- On December 12, Lalan Sheikh’s body was found hanging in the toilet of a CBI camp office in Rampurhat, Birbhum district.
- The CBI claimed it was a suicide.
- Sheikh’s family members insist that he was murdered while in custody.
- The custodial death has come as a major loss of face for the CBI.