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SANDESHKHALI HORROR SAGA: How will TMC handle it?

Had the ED raid attempt on Sheikh Shahjahan’s house on January 5, 2024 not happened, the alleged “volcanic eruptions” over Sandeshkhali across the nation would not be known. Three ED officers were injured and several of their vehicles vandalised as hundreds of supporters of TMC leader Shajahan Sheikh attacked them. The attack happened when the ED team went to Sheikh’s house in Sandeshkhali for a raid in connection with alleged irregularities in the state’s ration system.

“The role of the Basirhat Police on that day has also been mentioned in the report — how they fled the scene on unmarked two-wheelers as the attack began,” he added. The ED has already lodged a complaint at the Nazat police station in connection with the attack. The family of the accused TMC leader, and state police have also registered separate complaints against the central agency. Incidentally, on the same night, the ED faced a similar situation while arresting another TMC leader, Shankar Adhya, in the alleged ration scam.

Sheikh has been absconding since then. After that incident, local women came out in large numbers alleging that Shahjahan and his men had usurped their lands to set up prawn farms and had been sexually harassing local women for years. These accusations sparked protests and a blame game between political parties. Tensions escalated further on February 8 when protesters set fire to three poultry farms owned by one of Sheikh’s men.

WHO IS SHAHJAHAN?
Shahjahan’s has traversed quite a bit to reach this far. His journey to become Sandeshkhali’s strongman actually began well before the TMC came to power. And that is thanks to his uncle Moslem Sheikh who was a local CPM neta and the panchayat chief.

During the early 2000s, reports allege that Shahjahan used to be seen on the sidestep of cars ferrying passengers between neighbouring Sarberia and Sandeshkhali and calling out for passengers and collecting fare too. It may be noted here that in his nomination papers for the panchayat polls, he had left the qualification column empty!

It was after a turn of events that uncle Moslem ordered Shahjahan to look after the local fish trade. Shahjahan was perhaps learning the ropes and used to help out uncle Moslem in during elections and keeping in touch with local party leaders.

It was since then that his assets boomed. And the new-found start-up guy initially turned into a “messiah” of sorts in the area with doling out cash to local residents during crisis like in weddings, ailments and education. Shahjahan became popular.

Shahjahan had the foresight and realised the winds of change long before even his politician uncle. Shahjahan gradually started distancing himself from the CPM and Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress gained ground ahead of the 2011 polls. Shahjahan’s checkmate move proved right and the TMC stormed into power in 2011 after a 34-year rule of the Left.

WEALTH ACCUMULATED
Documents submitted for panchayat polls stated Shahjahan owns 17 cars, 43 bighas of land -- about 23 acres -- and jewellery worth over Rs 2 crore. His bank balance was nearly Rs 2 crore. The strongman mentioned his occupation as ‘business’ and his annual income was shown as nearly Rs 20 lakh. Locals, however, claim that his actual property is much more. They further alleged that he owned two brick kilns and his aides collected a cut from every fish trader in the area.

ALLEGATIONS OF LAND GRAB
Over the past decade, agricultural production in Sandeshkhali saw a swift decline and fish cultivation an exponential growth. Behind this was Sheikh Shahjahan. Local residents recount the strongman’s oftrepeated expression: nona jole sona fole (Gold grows in saline water). His ways to “grow gold”, however, have drawn serious allegations of land grab. Several farmers have narrated to NDTV how Shahjahan took control of land. His men would break embankments to channel saline water into agricultural land. “They have inundated our land with saline water so that we cannot grow crops here. (Shahjahan’s aides) Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra did this. Now they are rearing lobsters,” said a local farmer.

Meanwhile the The Supreme Court on Monday (February 19) refused to entertain plea seeking transfer of investigation and subsequent trial outside WB and probe by the CBI or a SIT in connection with alleged sexual assault of women living in village Sandeshkhali in Bengal.

WHAT NCW CHIEF SAID
National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma on Monday accused WB govt of stifling the voices of numerous women in Sandeshkhali during protests against alleged TMC-led atrocities, prompting a rebuttal from the ruling party, which claimed that the panel was acting under the “influence of the BJP”.

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL

Robin Roy The writer is Senior Journalist and former Managing Editor, First India

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