Sandeshkhali in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, which made headlines for protests demanding the arrest of TMC leader Sheikh Shajahan, is essentially an island, one of many in the Sunderbans region. To get to it you have to cross a river.
And Sheikh Shajahan is known as the ‘betaj badshah‘ (or cheeky king) of Sandeshkhali. Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers who went to the area on January 5 to search their premises in connection with an alleged ration distribution scam in the state were attacked and their belongings snatched.
A section of the local population has been demanding the arrest of Shajahan and his aides, while another set fire to the poultry farm of his partner Shiboprasad Hazra and vandalized the farm of Uttam Sardar, another aide. The protests intensified with local women, armed with lathis, camping around the police station. Several locals allege that Hazra and Sardar “tortured” them, took away their land and forced them to work without pay.
To understand the situation on the ground, News18 traveled to Sandeshkhali. Before reaching the main island, you have to cross an area called Sorberia, where an entire market is named after Shajahan. News18 then reached Dhamakhali, from where you can take a ferry service to reach Sandeshkhali. That the area was not at peace became evident very soon when a huge police presence could be seen at the scene. ghat.
News18 then reached the village where Hazra’s poultry farm caught fire. Here, Shiboprasad Hazra’s name is written on the walls next to the TMC’s election symbol, remnants of the recent Panchayat elections. His poultry farm spread over a vast area. There is nothing left of that, but police personnel have been stationed here to prevent more violence.
Tulsi Mondal, a local, lives next door to what was once the poultry farm. “They weren’t giving us money. We don’t know who has broken all this, but Hazra and Sardar are extortionists. They used to grow fish in the houses of common people. bheri (ponds for fish farming), but they never paid us money. I went there to ask for money for my daughter’s wedding, but they told me we wouldn’t get anything. They used to force us to go to (public) meetings and if we refused, they would file false cases against our boys. “Now we live in fear,” he told News18.
Jayanti Barik, another local, told News18: “I also started working four months ago, but they didn’t give me any money. “I heard they used to do bad things to women.”
Similar feelings of anger and uncertainty run through Sandeshkhali. In addition to the presence of senior officials, a drone camera has also been deployed to monitor the law and order situation.
Once it broke out, the violence quickly spread to Jeliakhali and Tuskhali islands.
People living around Sandeshkhali police station were hesitant to talk to the media, but a migrant worker working in Kerala told News18 on condition of anonymity: “We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We have no choice but to protest. When the locals told Uttam Sardar to pay their debts, he refused and behaved very badly. “How long will people tolerate all this?”
Another local, Jadunath Maity, a shop owner in Sandeshkhali, told News18: “They are all babus. During the elections they make us work, but they don’t pay us anything. We are supporters of TMC, but we are not its servants. If we don’t do their job, we will be in jail. “The police support them because they are powerful.”
The BJP has alleged that Sheikh Shajahan is being “protected” by the police. BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar wrote a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah seeking the Centre’s intervention in the region. A BJP delegation was also stopped from entering Sandeshkhali citing the Section 144 Prohibitory Orders.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari met the governor and sought his intervention. Adhikari also declared his intention to visit Sandeshkhali with other MLAs on Monday.
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Contrary to the BJP’s allegations, the ruling TMC has alleged a “conspiracy” by the CPM and the saffron party to divert attention from the state government’s “movement” over non-payment of central MNREGA funds to West Bengal.
State Crime Records Bureau director general Siddhinath Gupta and all senior officers are now posted in Sandeshkhali. “Fourteen people have been arrested. We are investigating all complaints. “The situation is peaceful,” Gupta said.
Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
first published: February 10, 2024, 19:57 IST