Systemic sexual assault, an oppressive TMC and not much recourse: What Sandeshkhali villagers say

Allegations of horrific abuse and a system where total control is exercised by local TMC leaders have put this Bengal village on the national news radar.
Women protesting at Sandeshkhali.
Women protesting at Sandeshkhali. Joydeep Sarkar
Written by:

By Joydeep Sarkar

Since last week, extraordinary sights of protest and political developments have taken place in Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal’s North 24 Parganas that had largely been out of the radar until news of an attack on Enforcement Directorate officials by a local Trinamool Congress leader broke last month. 

But the protests that have taken place since February 8 are not directly linked to the tussle between state and Union government. Instead, they concern hundreds women who have alleged that top TMC leaders in the area have unleashed a ‘reign of terror’ including consistent sexual harassment and sexual assault against local women.

The women have named TMC strongman Shahjahan Sheikh – who is incidentally absconding since the ED visit – and his aides Sibaprasad alias Sibu Hazra, and Uttam Sardar. 

In the last few days, many women have spoken to various reporters and described instances of alleged sexual assault by TMC leaders. Some have set fire to properties belonging to TMC leaders. Police have largely not intervened, however, internet has been shutdown and Section 144 has been imposed in the area.

Local cable operators have been instructed to pause services there. The area office of the TMC is under lock and key. Police are stationed at regular intervals throughout the area.

This reporter saw police give chase to a woman when a few villagers intervened and escorted her to safety. According to locals, she had been a prominent figure in the ongoing protests.

Allegations of horrific crimes

The Wire spoke to two women who recounted horrific abuse. Both have asked for their names to be withheld.

“They brought me into the party office, where a group of people were drinking. For the next one and half days, two of them tortured me in the party office itself. I was told that my husband would not ‘take me back’ after this and so I should stay on with the men in the room – that they would give me a government job eventually. They said they would place my husband’s severed head on my palms if I complained about what they had done to me,” said one woman. 

The woman said that local girls and women are terrified of attention from them. “Any woman found attractive by a TMC leader would be brought to the party office and leaders would take turns to rape her. Your caste or religion won’t matter,” she added.

Many have left the area, she said. And some other survivors have indeed been abandoned by their families.

Another woman in her mid-fifties said that in 2021, the women of the area sent a mass petition detailing all the cases of rape and torture of local women to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee by post. “Things did not improve. Police started threatening us for acting smart,” she added. 

She noted that the wanton crimes against local women are part of a bigger scheme where rights are continuously infringed upon.

“For the past few years, we’re robbed of our dignity. When the men in our families protested, TMC cadres and police mercilessly beat them up. Farmland was captured without farmers’ consent and turned into fisheries. No one got any compensation. Even allowances and money for working for government projects were forcibly taken away from us,” she said.

Another local said that rising awareness of how the state government is “looting” people’s money is why internet has been shut down. “Youth are able to look up how Shahjahan Sheikh has claimed to have done work worth crores which have come to naught,” he said.

Shahjahan Sheikh is very much the centre of all things Sandeshkhali. It is to search his house that ED officials arrived in the village in January this year, in connection with an alleged public distribution system scam. Since then, Shahjahan’s whereabouts have remained unknown despite multiple summons and a lookout notice by the ED. His legal team has sought court approval for bail on several occasions. 

“Didi is protecting him. He is being sheltered by the police and the administration. They might want to diffuse the anger by arresting one or two people, but the main culprit is still at large,” a local woman said. 

In the Kacharipara part of Sandeshkhali, another villager says financial corruption in the village “started soon after Trinamool came to power.”

“Young boys of 15-16 years were lured with alcohol. The biker gang of the party picked up our children from school, gave them guns, and asked them to take part in violence. The situation has worsened since 2018. They looted money, land and our women’s honour,” the villager claimed.

Police: Arrests, re-arrests and no ‘rape’

All three being accused of such crimes – Shahjahan, Uttam Sardar and Sibu Hazra – are members of the TMC-run Zilla Parishad. While Uttam won uncontested, Shahjahan and Sibu received 99.9% and 98% of total votes in the latest panchayat polls. Many believe that such figures indicate irregularities in the voting process rather than the mass support they command.

Faced with massive outrage from across the state, TMC on February 10 suspended Uttam for six years. For locals, this is little more than a token gesture. While Uttam was taken into

custody soon after that, police also arrested former Sandeshkhali MLA and CPI(M) state committee member Nirapada Sardar on the afternoon of February 11, from Kolkata, based on an FIR filed by Sibu who is still absconding. In the mean time, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Bikash Sinha was also held. 

All three were produced in the Basirhat court a day ago. TMC’s Uttam and BJP’s Bikash got bail, but CPI(M) leader Nirapada, did not.  BJP and TMC workers  outside the court welcomed the two amidst much fanfare.

Soon afterwards, police re-arrested Sinha over what they said was “an old case”. When protests led by local BJP workers appeared to go out of hand, and in dramatic scenes, Uttam was then brought back and re-arrested.

Police have constituted a 10-member team to be headed by a DIG-rank woman IPS officer to look into the allegations of sexual assault. The team will begin groundwork from today.

However, Barasat Range DIG Sumit Kumar told reporters that four complaints have yet been filed at Sandeshkhali. “None of them mention rape. If we get such a complaint, we will take action. We are investigating this,” he said.

When asked to respond to this claim, a woman who had spoken to The Wire of sexual assault said that she had grown so used to seeing policemen in public places with the accused TMC leaders that she does not expect behaviour to the contrary.

Bengal police have also allegedly stopped groups led by opposition leaders to the village, although the governor, C.V. Ananda Bose has visited the village.

The Wire has reached out to the Basirhat Superintendent of Police, Dr. Hossain Mehedi Rehman, requesting various details on what the arrests and re-arrests were on the basis of, and on the lack of police action initially. This report will be updated once there is a response.

The land

On February 11, as this reporter chatted with residents on Khulna Island, some men on bikes suddenly appeared to be patrolling the area. A few villagers grew alert. One said, “Be careful. Parimal Mridha and Santosh have heard that we’re talking to you. They might torture us again.” Both are local TMC leaders. 

Villagers pointed to a massive fishery. Once known as Majherpara, the land which used to yield crops twice a year, stands barren today. Three years ago, they said, Shahjahan’s men claimed the entire area, abruptly declaring it suitable for fishing. Villagers were barred from harvesting their crops. Overnight, a massive machine tore through the 150-acre farmland, uprooting everything to transform it into a fishery, they said. This once-productive land is now renamed ‘Akashbheri’. Akash is, incidentally, TMC leader Sibu’s son, villagers remind this reporter.

Shahjahan commands a large force of TMC workers who have reportedly seized over 2,000 acres across Sandeshkhali, displacing farmers. The names of those who sought justice at the police station were reportedly leaked to TMC leaders, leading to nighttime assaults.

A young boy walked up to this reporter and said that he feels like crying when he sees a particular fishery (seen in the above image). “We asked them for a month to just let us harvest our crop. They didn’t let us. They destroyed my grandfather’s shop also,” he said.

Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute