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How ED Raid In Bengal Proved A Manna For Sandeshkhali Women

| Updated: February 15, 2024 12:44

West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali is in news for the wrong reasons. After the attack on Enforcement Directorate’s officials, allegations of systemic sexual exploitation against local Trinamool Congress leaders are emerging from this island of North 24 Paraganas district. The opposition BJP is carrying out protests and calling for action against Trinamool leaders.

They are narrating stories of alleged horrific sexual exploitation by Trinamool leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his henchmen, and are seeking justice. They allege that women were chosen and taken to the Trinamool party office, csonfined there night after night, and released only after the Trinamool members were “satisfied”. The videos of their allegations have gone viral now.

Women here cannot live in safety. We women fear going out. We want safety,” said Sandeshkhali resident Kanika Das.

Kanika Das narrated the horrifying incidents of alleged systemic gang rape and sexual exploitation. “The miscreants, accompanied by the police, about 20-30 of them, came to my home at 3 am. They kicked hard on my door, broke my window, pulled me by my hand and hair and even snatched away my baby daughter and threw her away,” added Kanika Das.

The women who spoke up against Sheikh Shahjahan were attacked by Sheikh Shahjahan and his men, Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

What enabled the women to break the cycle of silence was the fleeing of Sheikh Shahjahan after the Enforcement Directorate’s raid.

This is an area of the Sunderbans where poverty is a dominating factor and one of the key reasons behind the years of silence. Then there is unchecked power wielded by anti-social elements who gained political centrestage due to the Trinamool regime.

“Sheikh Shahjahan and his gang established a ‘reign of terror’ where the dignity and modesty of women from the SC and ST communities have been repeatedly violated,” Suvendu Adhikari, BJP’s leader of opposition in West Bengal and Nandigram MLA wrote on X.

Reports and videos of the alleged systemic sexual exploitation of young married Hindu women of Sandeshkhali have come out now. “Bengal has turned into a state run by a government of rapists, by rapists, for rapists,” BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said.

Responding to the BJP leader’s allegations, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh accused the BJP of trying to “vitiate the atmosphere”.

“The allegations (of gangrape) are baseless. The BJP is trying to vitiate the atmosphere of the area. They want to disturb the law and order situation,” Ghosh said.

The Calcutta High Court, too, took suo moto cognisance of the Sandeshkhali incident. It asked the Mamta Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government to submit a report by February 20 on allegations of sexual assault on women “at gunpoint” and transfer of tribal land at Sandeshkhali.

“Mamata Banerjee is known for the genocide of Hindus. She will now allow her men to pick young married Hindu women to be raped in the TMC office. The question Mamata Banerjee has to answer is – where is Sheikh Shahjahan?,” Union minister Smriti Irani said on the reports of alleged sexual violence in Sandeshkhali.

Trinamool Congress didn’t deny the allegations of sexual exploitation of women, but they attacked Smriti Irani for “trying to foment trouble in Bengal”.

Sheikh Shahjahan is the same person who the Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials were going to raid regarding an alleged ration scam on January 5. However, the ED officials, on their way to Sandeshkhali, were attacked by a mob of hundreds. He has been absconding since then.

The recent protests by women of Sandeshkhali brought the dark deeds of Sheikh Shahjahan and the political-criminal nexus to the forefront. It revealed how the exploitative apparatus run by him is much wider and deeper than expected.

Sandeshkhali, part of the remote Sundarbans, whose rural economy is sustained by fishing and farming, has also seen resource-grabbing for the past three decades, with a rising population and dwindling resources.

“The people, brought in and settled by Sheikh Shahjahan, in turn, would obviously have the highest of regards for their master. They would use them as manpower too, to carry out various other illegal activities, ranging from violence to smuggling,” author Diptasya Jash.

The power that Sheikh Shahjahan wields can be gauged from the fact that he got a state transport bus service stopped in Sandeshkhali so that he could benefit.

“It was also under the careful watch of Shahjahan Sheikh that a WBSRTC bus serving the area was discontinued. Instead, Sheikh Shahjahan employed youths who have immigrated illegally to operate e-rickshaws and auto rickshaws to earn profits,” author Diptasya said, who spent 15 days in the Sandeshkhali area during the research of his book, Udbastur Gaan.

These people are essentially part of Trinamool’s vote bank and ground support base.

Experts say that if people like Sheikh Shahjahan sustain the Trinamool by funding it and providing votes, the Trinamool allows them to grow and feed the ecosystem.

If the women in Sandeshkhali have been allegedly facing sexual violence and harassment for years, why have they not spoken out earlier?

BJP executive committee member Anirban Ganguly says that the people have lost confidence in the police force of West Bengal.

“A large section of the police on the ground and a section of officers at the top are subservient to the Trinamool leadership and function as Trinamool partymen,” said Anirban Ganguly.

“In several districts, the local party is often run by the Superintendent of Police (SP) or the District Magistrate (DM) because of their direct access to West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee,” added Ganguly.

In a situation like this, where the political and economic reins are in the hands of these strongmen, who mobilise manpower and illegal money, incidents of atrocities by Sheikh Shahjahan and his men were never reported or went unheard.

“If you ask why have the villagers not raised their voices yet? I would say, many of these villagers, never enfranchised, may not have seen their voter cards. Do you think they would know about your rights,” asked Diptasya Jash, referring to the illegal citizenship status of the Hindu residents of the area.

This highlights how the recent protests by the women of Sandeshkhali are a courageous and unprecedented act in itself.

“The people of the islands are not too used to going to the police stations and lodging complaints, which, anyway, are under the influence of the ruling party,” Kolkata-based senior journalist Suman Bhattacharya told IndiaToday.In.

This is substantiated by the remarks of Rekha Sharma, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW).

“Villagers are terrified equally by goons and by the police,” Rekha Sharma posted on X . “According to my team who has visited Sandeshkali, police have filed complaints against the relatives of women victims instead of filing their complaints. This is the way Mamta Banerjee treats women in West Bengal,” the NCW chairperson said.

The women of Sandeshkhali have taken a bold step and institutions are rallying behind them. The question is how long it will take for them to get justice. The bigger question, however, is will the vicious cycle of exploitation in the border areas of West Bengal ever end.

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