West Bengal: Women Victimized Amidst Power Struggle and Political Blame Games in Sandeshkhali Violence!

Women allege that Trinamool Congress members conducted door-to-door surveys in the village. If a woman or girl was deemed attractive, they were taken to the party office and kept there for several nights, where they were sexually exploited.
Pic credit- Indian Express
Pic credit- Indian Express

Sandeshkhali, in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, has been in the news for quite some time due to ongoing political turmoil between the TMC and the BJP. Accusations of sexual harassment and land grabbing have been levied against TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his associates, Shibu Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar, leading to massive protests that have lasted for nearly 15 days.

The protests, fueled by allegations of sexual exploitation and forced land acquisition, have garnered national attention. Local women have come forward with accusations against Shahjahan and his associates, exacerbating tensions in the area.

Recently, renewed protests erupted in various parts of Sandeshkhali, with angry locals setting fire to properties belonging to TMC leaders accused of misconduct. The unrest has persisted for nearly two weeks, underscoring deep-seated grievances within the community.

During the protests, demonstrators armed with sticks set fire to structures near a fishing yard in the Belmajur area, targeting properties associated with Shahjahan and his brother, Siraj. The escalation of violence reflects the frustration of locals who feel marginalized and ignored by the authorities.

The situation in Sandeshkhali escalated on January 5 when an Enforcement Directorate (ED) team conducting a raid at Shahjahan's residence was attacked by a mob allegedly affiliated with the TMC. This incident further fueled public outrage, particularly among women, who have been protesting vigorously since February 7.

The authorities have taken steps to restore peace in the area, with reports indicating the arrest of 18 individuals, including Shibu Prasad Hazra. However, Shahjahan, the primary accused, remains at large, adding to the tension and uncertainty.

The political dimension of the conflict has added complexity to the situation, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blaming the BJP and the RSS for the unrest. In response, the BJP and Congress have accused the TMC of shielding those implicated in the alleged crimes.

According to reports, TMC leader Shahjahan is accused of several crimes ranging from money laundering to harassment. According to media reports, speaking about the Sandeshkhali protests, BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain said that there is no government in West Bengal and alleged that BJP workers are being attacked in the area.

Pic source- The New Indian Express
Pic source- The New Indian Express

Allegations of Sexual Harassment and Exploitation: Women Speak Out

The protesting women have leveled serious accusations against TMC leader Shahjahan Shaikh and his supporters, alleging instances of sexual harassment. They claim that individuals associated with Shahjahan Sheikh would forcibly take them away at night and release them in the morning after subjecting them to laborious tasks.

Women were coerced into attending late-night meetings under the guise of party gatherings, where they were made to cook and dine with the perpetrators. Despite lodging complaints with the police, the victims claim to have received no assistance. In fear of reprisal, none of the women were willing to speak on camera.

One woman, speaking to The Quint, revealed the longstanding pattern of sexual and socio-economic exploitation endured by the women of Sandeshkhali. She recounted instances where they were kept at the party office for hours, pleading to be allowed to return home to their families, only to be disregarded by their captors.

Women also allege that Trinamool Congress members conducted door-to-door surveys in the village. If a woman or girl was deemed attractive, they were taken to the party office and kept there for several nights, where they were sexually exploited. These women, making the accusations, assert that the fear instilled by Sheikh Shahjahan in the area prevented anyone from speaking out. Additionally, they have implicated TMC leaders Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra, who are considered close associates of Sheikh Shahjahan.

However, Shibu Hazra, an ally of Sheikh Shahjahan, has denied all allegations of sexual harassment, claiming that he is being framed as part of a conspiracy.

According to Rekha Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, the commission has received at least 18 complaints from various women in the area as of Monday, February 19, as reported by The Quint.

Among the accusations, women have also alleged rape, land grabbing, and non-payment of dues against the accused TMC leaders. They claim that out of the 18 complaints received, two are related to rape.

Image- PTI
Image- PTI

Amidst Political Turmoil: Allegations and Counter-Allegations

BJP State President Sukanta Majumdar penned a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah on February 9, highlighting the atrocities allegedly committed by Sheikh Shahjahan, Shibu Hazra, Uttam Sardar, and their associates. He emphasized that these actions have instilled fear and insecurity among the residents of Sandeshkhali, depriving them of their basic rights to security and dignity.

Following this, on February 10, BJP members marched from the Assembly to Raj Bhavan, urging intervention from the Governor. Notable leaders, including Shubhendu Adhikari, participated in this demonstration.

Meanwhile, in West Bengal, BJP leader and Nandigram MLA Suvendu Adhikari addressed the Sandeshkhali incident on February 11, stating, “Sheikh Shahjahan and his gang have unleashed a 'reign of terror', repeatedly violating the dignity and modesty of women from SC and ST communities.”

Legal Action Taken by Calcutta HC and NHRC

Calcutta High Court judge Justice Apoorva Sinha Ray took suo motu cognizance of the incident on February 13, directing the Mamata government to submit a report by February 20. Subsequently, on February 14, the High Court revoked Section 144 in Sandeshkhali and appointed a lawyer as amicus curiae. The court issued notices to the state government, police, and district administration, questioning the delay in arresting Sheikh Shahjahan. The case involves allegations of sexual harassment and forcible land occupation.

Additionally, a video surfaced wherein a woman alleged that housewives were compelled to stay with TMC workers and leaders. However, a two-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Justice BV Nagarathna dismissed a plea seeking a court-monitored probe into the violence, stating that it cannot be equated with the situation in Manipur.

The National Human Rights Commission also intervened, sending a notice to the West Bengal police chief over the unlawful detention of a journalist covering the Sandeshkhali issue.

The Commission views these allegations as serious violations of human rights and press freedom. A report has been sought from the West Bengal Director General of Police within two weeks, with an additional inquiry by its DIG (Investigation) to ascertain the facts.

During her visit to Sandeshkhali, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women received 18 complaints, including two cases of rape.

Political Rhetoric Surrounding Sandeshkhali Incident

Union Minister Smriti Irani delivered a scathing critique of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a press conference addressing the Sandeshkhali incident. Irani accused Banerjee of presiding over the 'genocide of Hindus' and permitting her party workers to perpetrate sexual violence against women.

Meanwhile, addressing the Sandeshkhali incident in the Assembly, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stated, “We have taken action on the entire matter. BJP is spoiling the atmosphere by calling people from outside. BJP people are making statements on this matter wearing masks. Sandeshkhali has become a bunker of RSS. There have been riots here before as well, I have never allowed injustice to happen to anyone nor will I allow it to happen.”

Mamata Banerjee confirmed that 17 individuals have been arrested in connection with the Sandeshkhali violence case. Additionally, she announced the deployment of a women police team in Sandeshkhali to visit every household and address women's complaints directly.

Bengal Governor CV Anand Bose visited Sandeshkhali to assess the situation following the women's protests. Bose described the incident as horrifying and shocking.

A Legacy of Political Violence in Bengal

Over the years, West Bengal has been plagued by political violence, with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documenting an average of 20 political killings annually from 1999 to 2016.

Particularly alarming is the surge in violence following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with at least 47 political killings of workers affiliated with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the majority of which occurred in South Bengal.

Moreover, NCRB data reveals a concerning trend in missing women cases, with West Bengal ranking as the second-largest state in terms of reported missing women. Despite being less populous than Maharashtra where 33,964 women were reported missing in 2018,, West Bengal reported 31,299 missing women cases in the same year, disproportionately high for its population size. Notably, Kolkata, Nadia, Barasat, Barrackpur, and Murshidabad recorded the highest number of missing women cases, highlighting the severity of the issue.

Sandeshkhali, a region in West Bengal, reflects the state's diverse demographic composition. Scheduled Castes (SC) constitute 30.9 percent of the population, while Scheduled Tribes (ST) make up 25.9 percent. Additionally, Hindus account for 69.19 percent, and Muslims comprise 30.42 percent of the total population in Sandeshkhali. Despite its demographic diversity, Sandeshkhali, like many other areas in West Bengal, has been marred by a history of political violence, complicating the state's political landscape for decades.

The state's political history is characterized by a cycle of power shifts between different parties. The Indian National Congress (INC) dominated the political scene for over two decades post-independence, followed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), which held power for almost three decades. Currently, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) is in power. However, regardless of the ruling party, the culture of violent clashes between political workers, especially in rural areas, has persisted, intensifying in recent years.

The proliferation of political violence has made it a central issue in public discourse and policy debates in India. The contentious nature of politics in West Bengal has often led to violent confrontations, posing significant challenges to governance and stability.

In this ongoing battle for control and political influence, the mistreatment of women is utterly unacceptable and deserves strong condemnation.

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