Sandeshkhali in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, in the news for protests demanding the arrest of TMC leader Sheikh Shajahan, is essentially an island, one of the many in the Sunderbans region. To reach it, one has to cross a river.
And Sheikh Shajahan is known as the ‘betaj badshah’ (or brazen king) of Sandeshkhali. Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers who went to the area on January 5 to search his premises in connection an alleged ration distribution scam in the state were attacked and their belongings were snatched.
A section of the locals has been demanding the arrest of Shajahan and his aides, while another set fire to his associate Shiboprasad Hazra’s poultry farm and went on to vandalise the farmhouse of Uttam Sardar, another aide. The protests escalated with local women, armed with lathis, camping around the police station. Several locals allege Hazra and Sardar “tortured” them, snatched their land, made them work without pay.
To understand the situation on the ground, News18 travelled to Sandeshkhali. Before reaching the main island, one has to cross an area called Sorberia, where an entire market is named after Shajahan. News18 then reached Dhamakhali from where a ferry service can be taken to reach Sandeshkhali. That the area was not at peace was evident very soon as huge police presence could be seen at the ghat.
News18 then reached the village where Hazra’s poultry farm was set on fire. Here, Shiboprasad Hazra’s name is written on the walls next to the TMC election symbol, remnants of the recent Panchayat elections. His poultry farm was spread over a vast area. Nothing remains of it now, but police personnel have been posted here to prevent any more violence.
Tulsi Mondal, a local, lives next to what was once the poultry farm. “They were not giving us money. We don’t know who has broken all this, but Hazra and Sardar are extortionists. They used to do fish farming in common people’s bheri (ponds for fish farming), but they never paid us any money. I went there to ask for money for my daughter’s wedding, but they said we will get nothing. They used to force us to go to (public) meetings, and if we refused, they would file false cases against our boys. We are now living in fear,” she told News18.
Jayanti Barik, another local, told News18: “I also started working four months ago, but they did not give me any money. I heard that they used to do bad things to women.”
Similar sentiments of anger and uncertainty run through Sandeshkhali. Apart from the presence of senior officials, a drone camera has also been deployed to keep an eye on the law and order situation.
Once it erupted, the violence had quickly spread to Jeliakhali and Tuskhali islands.
People who live around the Sandeshkhali police station were hesitant in speaking to the media, but one migrant worker who works in Kerala told News18 on condition of anonymity: “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We have no other option but to protest. When locals told Uttam Sardar to pay them their dues, he refused and behaved very badly. How long people will tolerate all this?”
Another local, Jadunath Maity, who owns a shop in Sandeshkhali, told News18: “They are all babus. During elections, they make us work, but don’t pay us anything. We are TMC supporters, but we are not their servants. If we don’t do their work, then we will be in jail. The police supports them as they are powerful.”
The BJP has alleged that Sheikh Shajahan is being “protected” by the police. BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar wrote a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, seeking the Centre’s intervention in the region. A BJP delegation was also stopped from entering Sandeshkhali citing the Section 144 prohibitory orders.
Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, meanwhile, met the Governor and requested his intervention. Adhikari also declared his intention to visit Sandeshkhali with other MLAs on Monday.
Countering the BJP’s allegations, the ruling TMC has alleged a “conspiracy” by the CPM and the saffron party to divert attention from the state government’s “movement” over the non-payment of central MNREGA funds to West Bengal.
DG of State Crime Record Bureau Siddhinath Gupta and all senior officers are now posted in Sandeshkhali. “Fourteen people have been arrested. We are looking into all complaints. The situation is peaceful,” Gupta said.