Women protesters in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal
A video which recently went viral on social media has brought to light allegations of systemic sexual exploitation and land grabbing against local leaders affiliated with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal. "The party (Trinamool) men would come and survey a home that has a beautiful wife, whose girl is young. Then they take the women to the party office... Nights after night they would be kept there... till they are satisfied," alleged a woman in the viral video.
The prime accused is TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan, a member of the local Zila Parishad, who is currently absconding after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) attempted to raid his premises in connection with a ration scam.
"Sheikh Shahjahan and his gang established a 'reign of terror' where the dignity and modesty of women belonging to the SC & ST Communities have been repeatedly violated. They forcefully captured swathes of land belonging to the Janjatiyas & Tribals," Suvendu Adhikari, BJP's Leader of Opposition in West Bengal and Nandigram MLA wrote on X, on February 11.
Today, Union minister Smriti Irani echoed his sentiments, saying at a press conference in Delhi that “Hindu” women from lower caste SC, ST, fishermen and farming communities in the Sandeshkhali block had told local journalists that they were “raped” regularly by TMC workers owing allegiance to Sheikh Shahjahan, whose supporters had attacked Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers some weeks ago.
Sandeshkhali is located in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. It is an island in the Sunderbans, accessible only by boat and close to the Bangladesh border. It recently erupted in protests with women marching with lathis in protest against the alleged routine sexual exploitation.
Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) has been imposed in certain areas of Sandeshkhali due to these protests, restricting public gatherings to prevent unrest. Internet closures in the region have further hampered communication.
The spark that lit the fire
The turmoil traces back to an attack on the ED officials en route to raid Sheikh Shahjahan's premises on January 5. Sheikh Shahjahan went into hiding after a mob of hundreds attacked the ED convoy, resulting in injuries to the officers. Despite over a month passing since the attack, Sheikh Shahjahan remains elusive, prompting BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari to issue a 24-hour ultimatum to West Bengal Governor CV Anand Bose for intervention.
'If you have tears to cry...': Governor Bose on Sandeshkhali violence
Bose visited today. And this is what he had to say regarding the situation: "If you have tears to cry, then now is the time to shed them. When I listened to my mothers and sisters there (in Sandeshkhali), I could not believe that this could happen in Rabindranath Tagore’s place. I will fight it out within the laws of the land. Certainly we will spare no efforts to see the guilty punished."
The State Women's Commission chairperson Leena Gangopadhyay too reached Sandeshkhali Monday, to take stock of the situation, while the National Commission for Women (NCW) expressed deep concern over the reports, demanding a thorough investigation.
Amidst the protests and unrest, BJP leaders have accused the Mamata Banerjee-led government of siding with TMC goons and imposing Section 144 to suppress dissent.
"At a time when the locals have mustered up the courage to protest against such atrocities, the Mamata Police have sided with the TMC goons. They have imposed Section 144 to quell the protests and have teamed up with the goons to attack the protestors at their homes in the darkness of the night," added opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari on X.
Seeking to know where Sheikh Shahjahan is, Irani today accused West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of allowing TMC workers to “rape” women each night.
"From Sandeshkhali, women from the SC, ST, fishermen and farming communities, while speaking to the media, have said that TMC men come to their homes to check which woman is beautiful and young. The women of Sandeshkhali and their husbands have told journalists that local TMC men boast that Hindu women’s husbands would be husbands only in name, but won’t have any rights (on their wives)… Sandeshkhali women are crying out for help and protection,” Irani said.
She added, “The question is — can we remain mute spectators?… Mamata Banerjee has to answer where Sheikh Shahjahan is. The last time you heard this name was when ED officers were injured. The ED said three of its officers had suffered injuries that were intended to cause death. Mamata Banerjee, you have traded the dignity of SC, ST, fishermen and farming families and their women for political gains.”
No rape complaint received: Police
In an official statement, SP Basirhat, Hossain Mehedi Rehman IPS, reported that officers conducted interviews with women in Sandeshkhali, resulting in the receipt of four written complaints. However, he said that none of these complaints specifically mentioned charges of rape.