Silence on Sandeshkhali ‘sting’, visits to temples: On the campaign trail of BJP’s Basirhat pick

Muslims form the majority in the West Bengal constituency which is seeing a triangular contest.
Silence on Sandeshkhali ‘sting’, visits to temples: On the campaign trail of BJP’s Basirhat pick
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Sitting in a decorated e-rickshaw, BJP’s Basirhat candidate Rekha Patra greets her supporters, surrounded by security personnel and a sea of “Modi Ka Parivaar” flags until it’s time to get down from the vehicle and walk up to the stage. A crowd of 500 awaits her in Hasnabad’s Chak Kukidanga. Her speech is brief. 

“I am truly pleased to see the solidarity of protesting women from every corner, in support of Sandeshkhali. Let’s ensure that Modiji comes to power in Basirhat so that we can teach a lesson to the TMC goons,” she says, centering her remarks around the Sandeshkhali violence.

Amid the Lok Sabha poll campaign in West Bengal, Sandeshkhali – an island in the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency – has emerged as a controversial talking point. The BJP decided to field violence survivor Patra, following allegations of sexual harassment against TMC strongman Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides, who the BJP claims had enjoyed patronage under Mamata Banerjee’s government.

But last week, the Trinamool Congress had circulated a video purportedly showing a local BJP leader’s confession that the sexual harassment complaint was allegedly filed in return for bribes given by BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari. The leader in the video as well as the BJP alleged that it was a fake video.

Patra, meanwhile, is going to one locality after another, raising the same allegations against the TMC. But there are no women party workers from Sandeshkhali accompanying the candidate, whose name is now synonymous with the controversy.

Her campaign is closely guarded by BJP workers, who stopped us from asking her any question about the “confession” video. “Media is asking many wrong questions to her, that is why we are not even giving many interviews,” a BJP worker, looking after Patra’s campaign, told Newslaundry. 

On the day we accompanied her X-category security entourage, the public meeting at Chak Kukidnaga was the sole event where she directly addressed a crowd, with the rest of the meetings focused on meeting locals.

There are no women party workers from Sandeshkhali accompanying the candidate, whose name is now synonymous with the controversy.

But what has emerged as the centrepiece of her campaign is her repeated reference to the safety of women against TMC “goons”, and visits to local temples.

The Basirhat Lok Sabha segment has seven assembly seats, including Sandeshkhali, and has traditionally been a Left bastion. But TMC has won consecutively since 2009. This time, the TMC has dropped incumbent MP Nusrat Jahan and fielded the 2009 winner Haji Nurul Islam against Patra and CPIM’s Nirapada Sardar.

Basirhat has a 54 percent Muslim population.

Hindutva plank? 

Patra has temporarily relocated from Sandeshkhali to a rented accommodation in Basirhat, nearly 40 kilometres away from her home, for the poll campaign considering an intelligence input about a physical threat.

To curious onlookers, her convoy – comprising three Scorpios and two Sumos – looks like a VIP campaigner’s.

On Sunday, her campaign primarily targeted areas with Hindu majorities, with visits to at least five temples or religious centres across three locations. She got out of the car, and walked through villages to reach the temple. 

In Bhebia Bazar in Basirhat, she strolled through the market, greeted by supporters with slogans such as “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. She joined in the chanting at one point. 

After a pause at Bhebia Hari Sabha temple, Patra’s convoy proceeded to Kunanagar, where she walked several hundred metres to seek blessings at a newly constructed Kali Mandir in the village. Patra was welcomed with the sound of conch shells in Kunanagar, with hundreds gathered outside the temple.

“We are receiving overwhelming support this time. Five years ago, organising such a rally here was unimaginable due to political pressure,” remarked a BJP worker during the rally.

“Our village is predominantly Hindu, with a few Muslim families. Everyone here is supporting Rekha,” claimed Sambhu Mondal, a self-proclaimed RSS worker. 

During lunch in Kunanagar, her supporters sat on the ground, served by Patra, before she decided to eat. The BJP leader visited the Shiv temple too before proceeding to a neighbouring village to visit another temple. 

“Modiji has called the women of Sandeshkhali as Shakti Swaroopa, Kali mata and Durga mata. Like I have taken blessings from every individual, I have also taken blessings from   every temple. Every Bengali needs blessing from this temple,” Patra told us.

“Since 2011, women of Sandeshkhali have been facing atrocities but they could not speak out. In 2024, when all women have come out and spoken openly, their fear has eased. While our CM was supposed to support us,  it was Modiji and Suvendu Adhikari who supported us like gods. That is why we are able to associate with BJP.”

The women in Sandeshkhali, including Rekha Patra, are victims. Their land and property have been taken away. So, I believe PM Modi can restore peace in the area.
Biman Barmik, a resident of Awadh Kulia Danga

‘Teach TMC goons a lesson’

On the absence of women workers from Sandeshkhali in Patra’s entourage, a BJP Mahila Morcha worker said there’s an “ego clash” among the protesting women in Sandeshkhali over the ticket to Patra,

But the controversy around the island has touched a nerve in Basirhat, irrespective of the video wars between the TMC and BJP.

“The women in Sandeshkhali, including Rekha Patra, are victims. Their land and property have been taken away. So, I believe PM Modi can restore peace in the area,” remarked Biman Barmik, a resident of Awadh Kulia Danga, an area covered by Patra’s rally.

Several residents dismissed the TMC’s video as “fake”. “If it was untrue, why were weapons discovered there? What about the state government’s claims about returning seized land to the people,” asked Bhulanath Nath of Amlani gram panchayat. 

Kalipada Mondal, a resident of Sulkuni Ghat, maintained that Sandeshkhali is a  “big” issue and there will be silent voting this time. Mondal, who claimed to be a Left supporter, said, “I have never voted for any other party than Left, but this time I have to think and vote.”  

However, Ram Krishna Barmik of Avadh Kuliadanga claimed the Sandeshkhali case was fake. “It’s somewhat true that Shahajan Sheikh was involved in land-related cases as a land mafia. But the rape case was fabricated and not true.”

“There are 49 percent Muslim votes in this constituency, and 40 percent will go to TMC. However, there will be a 50-50 divide in Hindu votes.”

‘She never visits us’

While the temple visits were the centrepiece of her campaign, Patra also seemed to reach out to a small section of the Muslim community.

After her speech in Chak Kuliadanga, Patra welcomed a local Muslim leader who joined the BJP, highlighting efforts to broaden the party's support base and dismissing the charge that the party was against the minority community. 

During her Kunanagar visit, too, three Muslim youths met her, which Patra’s supporters termed as the party’s effort to reach out to the minority community. 

Jahangir Raji, a BJP worker, claimed people would vote for the BJP due to growing corruption within the governing TMC. “From Sandeshkhali to cattle smuggling, the leaders of the ruling party are in jail now. So, people will vote for BJP to make a corruption free society.”

However, 10 kilometres away from Chak Kuliadanga, Muslim locals claimed Patra had never visited their locality. “Why would we vote if she never visits our constituency? There was some disgruntlement  against the previous MP. But this time TMC’s Haji Nazrul Islam is a good candidate and he will win from here.”

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