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Elections 2024: As Sandeshkhali Votes, A ‘New Shahjahan’ & An Eerie Silence

It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

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The last time Sneha Mondol* had faced cameras, she was narrating the story of how she was held by her hand and dragged down the road in front of her house by three men belonging to the Trinamool Congress.

Now, the cameras have come back but she refuses to say anything. Sneha is one of the two women from Sandeshkhali, a small island in the Sunderbans, who have retracted rape complaints filed with the police, accusing TMC leaders of perpetrating the crime.

Speaking to The Quint in March, Sneha had narrated the incident of molestation. Now, she says that she had told the National Commission of Women (NCW) and its head, Rekha Sharma, about her father-in-law’s land that had been taken away by Shahjahan and his men and money owed to her brother for work he’d done wasn't paid.

“I’d mentioned these two things to Rekha Sharma and written the same in my complaint. They changed the complaint and added the allegations of rape later. I didn’t know about it," Sneha tells The Quint at her residence in Sandeshkhali.
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“Some people are saying that I have taken Rs 20 lakh to do this. They can say what they want. I am not answerable to them”, she adds.

 When asked about her earlier allegation of molestation, she refuses to say more.

The Quint also visited the home of Nirmala Mondol*, the second woman who’d taken back her rape complaint. However, she refused to talk as well.

Both women now have two women police constables stationed at their house, ostensibly to protect them against any kind of attack and to ward away the media.

It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

Markers of the political slugfest in Sandeshkhali remain strewn across the island. A CBI poster asking women to register their complaints still stands in the village.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

Earlier this year, Sandeshkhali, in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, became a national talking point as hundreds of women from the village came out in protest against former TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides, Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra.

The women claimed that the three and other leaders of the TMC had raped many women in the village while intimidating people and grabbing their land to turn them into fishery ponds. The protests which began in January was brought to the national spotlight by the BJP, which has since made the issue one of its main campaign planks in the state for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Sandeshkhali is a part of the Basirhat parliamentary constituency that votes on 1 June.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since.

Shahjahan, Sardar and Hazra have been arrested. Over a thousand women have filed rape complaints. Grabbed land was returned to their rightful owners.

One of the main leaders of the protest — Rekha Patra, who was also interviewed by The Quint in March — has been fielded by the BJP as its candidate from Basirhat.

A sting video has done the rounds showing a BJP functionary- Gangadhar Koyal- saying that the rape complaints were fabricated. And yet another video surfaced where Rekha Patra can be seen saying that the rape victims who were taken by the BJP to meet President Droupadi Murmu were not the real victims.
It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

Gangadhar Koyal’s house remains vacant. A police notice asking him to join the investigation on the alleged rapes in Sandeshkhali remains stuck at his door.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

Rekha’s modest little hut, not far from Sneha’s home, now lies vacant. A big poster of hers has been stuck on one side of the façade. Her two sisters-in-law, who live in the adjoining huts, say that it’s a blessing that she has been shunted off to Basirhat town for campaign purposes.

“She now has security protecting her. Her entire family, including her three children, are in Basirhat. They would have been murdered here”, says Sagari Patra, one of the two.
It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

Rekha Patra has now moved to Basirhat for campaigning purposes. A poster of hers has been put up on the facade of her dilapidated hut.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

“We still get threats because we are a part of this family. My husband was not given his wages for work he had done in Shibu Hazra’s poultry farm. We are yet to get the money because we had spoken against the TMC”, she adds.

Sagari recalls Rekha excitedly dialing her after her conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a 10-minute call with Rekha, after her candidacy was declared, the PM called her ‘Shakti Swaroopa’.

“She has fought a lot and paid the price for it. I hope she never has to come and live in Sandeshkhali again. I hope she wins and goes directly to Delhi from Basirhat," said Sagari.

It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

Rekha’s sister in law, Sagari Patra, says she’s glad Rekha moved to Basirhat. She would’ve been murdered in Sandeshkhali, she says.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

A ‘New Shahjahan’ Emerges

The political slugfest around the issue has polarised Sandeshkhali. The TMC and BJP areas are clearly demarcated and anger against years of intimidation has not subsided. The polarisation makes it difficult to delineate the right from wrong and truth from fiction. Everybody is also extremely tight-lipped, with few agreeing to let their pictures be taken.

Rani Barui, one of the women who had taken part in the protests, says that she’s still harassed by TMC men because of it. She’s a resident of the Patrapara area in Sandeshkhali Block II where Rekha Patra also lived.

“There’s an attempt-to-murder charge against. They said that I attacked TMC leader Dilip Mullick. But nothing has happened to him. He’s roaming around freely”, says Rani.

“My question is- why did the women take so long to withdraw their complaint? It’s been two months since the complaints were registered. Why are they saying all this before the elections?”, she asks, adding that the women too were part of the protest.
It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

Rani Barui and Alka Aari, who were a part of the Sandeshkhali protests, say the timing of the sting video is suspicious.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

Alka Aari, who lives in the same neighbourhood, says that the protests weren’t just against land grab but sexual harassment too.

“You ask anyone in Sandeshkhali and they will tell you that women were called to the party office late at night and their family members beaten up when they didn’t go”, says Alka.

When asked about the specific charges of rape, Alka says that she personally doesn’t know anyone who’s gone through the ordeal but she says she wants to give the women the benefit of the doubt.

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Both women and other BJP-inclined women that The Quint met in Sandeshkhali seemed to now have their guns trained at TMC leader Dilip Mullick, who is also a member of the Sandeshkhali Panchayat Committee.

In one of the many twists to the Sandeshkhali tale, after the sting operation video surfaced and was circulated widely by the TMC, a case was filed against an alleged aide of Rekha Patra’s, Piyali alias Mampi Das. She thereafter surrendered, was sent to a correctional home for eight days and then released on bail.

Piyali alleged that Dilip Mullick and other TMC leaders offered her 20 lakh rupees to admit to the charges.

It seemed like Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way. Some said that he was Shahjahan’s right-hand man, even calling him the ‘new Shahjahan.'
It seemed like Dilip Mullick was the new head of the TMC in Sandeshkhali after Shahjahan and his gang had made way.

TMC leader, Dilip Mullick, has been dubbed by many villagers as the ‘new Shahjahan’.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri)

The TMC party office in Sandeshkhali has remained closed since it was attacked during the protests. The party’s work and meetings now happen in a patch of land hidden from public view opposite the Sandeshkhali Police Station.

Here, Dilip Mullick is busy filling out forms requesting the party for star campaigners who the cadre feel should come to Sandeshkhali and campaign for the TMC’s Basirhat candidate, Haji Nurul Islam. Islam replaced the incumbent TMC MP from the seat, film star Nusrat Jahan.

“What Sheikh Shahjahan did was his personal thing. I was not involved with him. I only did the party’s work. A few TMC members misbehaved, and the law will take its course,” Mullick told The Quint, amid constant back-to-back phone calls.

He then cites an incident from 11 May, when he and another TMC worker were beaten up by women with sticks.

“Over 100 women came and charged at me with sticks. They took off their shoes and threw them at me. They kept accusing me of making videos of women who are stating that they were hoodwinked into filing rape complaints. They accused me of making those videos viral”, says Mullick.

“How can I be the one threatening people if I am being beaten up? The BJP thought they had Sandeshkhali and now that these videos have emerged, they know that they are losing this segment”, he added.
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‘We Were All TMC Once’

The furore over the last few months has left Sandeshkhali divided, but wiser and more politically aware. Markers of political unrest are strewn across the island.

A big flex in Sandeshkhali Block II still stands, asking women to send in any complaints to a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) email ID. At the far end of the island, the home of Gangadhar Koyal, the BJP leader who was seen admitting to fabricating rape complaints in the sting video, remains empty.

A police notice, asking Koyal to co-operate with the investigation and appear at the Sandeshkhali police station, remains pasted on the door. BJP flags decorate the locality. Next to Gangadhar lives Hemanta Koyal, a self-proclaimed BJP worker who claims that he used to be in the TMC.

“I was a TMC member, but I didn’t get my wages. And when I went to them (Shahjahan and company) to ask about it, they beat me up as well. Imagine, if I was a party member and I was treated this way, what would the others have gone through? All of Sandeshkhali will attest to the atrocities they have committed,” says Hemanta.

He further says that the sting videos and videos released thereafter were all the handiwork of the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), the political consultancy firm that is handling the TMC’s campaign.

“They are leaving no stone unturned to prove that the claims of rape are untrue; that there was no wrong done. But look at our condition! We don’t have water here for years. The roads are shown as constructed on paper but are half done. This is the level of corruption and lawlessness that Sandeshkhali has had to face”, said Hemanta.

As the protests and subsequent politicisation of the same happened, the conscience keepers of Sandeshkhali are its toto (electric rickshaw) drivers. There is no other form of transport that plies on the island. So, whether one is a star TV anchor, or a powerful political leader or a CBI officer- everyone had to take a toto.

One such toto driver, Swapan Sinha, succinctly sums up the political churn in the village.

“We were all TMC once. But their reign of terror affected everyone. Even their supporters. The BJP wouldn’t be seen in these parts. Now you can see for yourself.”

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