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'Young Married Women Were the Targets': Survivors Recall Sandeshkhali Horror

Women allege TMC strongman Shahjahan Sheikh & his aides established a 'reign of terror' in the West Bengal village.

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Gender
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(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of violence and sexual assault.)

"The women of Sandeshkali have been exploited sexually and socioeconomically for years now, but we were scared to approach anyone," Roma Maiti (name changed), a 29-year-old resident of the West Bengal village, tells The Quint. "We were summoned to the party office by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) men for 'party' meetings late at night. They would keep us there for hours. They would ask us to cook for them and have our meals with them – despite us pleading with them to let us go since our families were waiting for us at home. They would refuse to listen to us."

For almost a fortnight, Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas has been witnessing massive protests against TMC leaders, including Shahjahan Sheikh and two of his aides Shibu Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

At least 18 complaints have been received from different women from the area, according to National Commission for Women Chairperson Rekha Sharma as of Monday, 19 February.

Among other things, the women have alleged systemic rape, land-grabbing, and non-payment of dues by the accused TMC leaders. Two of the 18 complaints pertain to rape.

"They would use vulgar terms like 'sexy', 'maal', and 'item' for us and would ask us to bring more women to these 'meetings' with us. They told us that we were there to just 'entertain' them and that if we failed to do that, they would not spare us."
Roma Maiti (name changed)
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'Threatened To Beat My Husband Up if I Refused...'

Twenty-six-year-old Mala Mondal (name changed) narrates to The Quint how she and her family have allegedly been subjected to harassment since 2019.

"Shibu Hazra used to call on my phone at odd hours and demand that I come to the party office. If I didn't receive the calls, he would call my husband or father, ask about my whereabouts, and then tell them to send me to the party office immediately. Why would someone call a woman to a party office late at night?" she asks.

Mondal alleges that it was clear to her he did not have "good intentions," so she did not go, but "the harassment went on."

"One day, I decided to go to the party office and put an end to the harassment. There, he asked me to perform a vulgar dance step and 'entertain' him. When I refused, he threatened to transfer my husband out of Sandeshkhali. I was forced to concede to his demands," she says.

She further claims that her husband stopped her from reporting the matter to the police, fearing retribution from Hazra.

Mondal alleges that young married women were the targets of these men. "They often singled them out and harassed them," she adds.

The West Bengal Police arrested Sardar on 10 February on charges of inciting violence, shortly after the TMC suspended him for six years. Hazra, who is also president of the TMC unit at Sandeshkhali-2 community block, was arrested on 17 February and charged with gang rape, attempt to murder, and molestation. Altogether, 18 people have been arrested so far. After being on run for weeks, Shahjahan Sheikh was arrested on 29 February.

Sheikh had been absconding for over a month. It was a raid by the Enforcement Directorate sleuths that had prompted the series of protests by local women, who spoke out against sexual harassment and violence allegedly at the hands of Sheikh and his close associates.

Maiti, meanwhile, alleges that even if a woman was to complain, the police wouldn't help her.

"The police never helped us. They always sided with Shibu Hazra and Shahjahan Sheikh. These TMC men would also threaten to beat our husbands up if we refused to show up. In one particular instance, when I didn't go to the party office, they sent a man on a bike to fetch me."
Roma Maiti

'Was Attacked for Speaking Up'

Minati Das (name changed) tells The Quint that Shahjahan Sheikh and his aides established "a reign of terror" in Sandeshkhali.

"My neice was summoned by these men repeatedly. Last December, they just came home and took her away to the party office. They refused to let her come home for a long time, and even called her casteist names, and humiliated her by calling her a nichu jaat mohila (low caste woman) and beat her up," Das alleges.

She says when she approached the Sandeshkhali police station, they refused to register her complaint.

"I was attacked for speaking up and approaching the cops. On 10 February, some miscreants, accompanied by the police, about 20-30 of them, came to my home at 3 am. They kicked hard on my door, broke my window, pulled me by my hand and hair, and even snatched away my baby daughter and threw her away," she alleges.

The Sandeshkhali police station, however, has denied the incident.

"We never received any such complaint by any individual about a family member of theirs being forcefully being taken away by some TMC men, so then where does the question of turning down even arise?" Sandeshkhali police station's officer-in-charge Biswajit Sapui tells The Quint.

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'TMC's Hold on Sandeshkhali Tenuous at the Moment'

As the political slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the TMC leaders raged on, senior TMC leader Partha Bhowmick, who visited Sandeshkhali amid protests, told reporters on Sunday, 18 February, that the TMC has "zero tolerance against any wrongdoing."

He added, "This is Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and not the Bharatiya Janata Party, we take action if anyone is found to have done anything wrong."

However, a senior party leader, who did not want to be named, expressed concerns over the impact of the Sandeshkhali incident on the electoral outcome in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

"As per the last Census report, 30 percent of Sandeshkhali's population comprise the minority community, while 30 percent are Dalits and 26 percent are Adivasis. The BJP is, therefore, attempting to manufacture an Adivasi vs Muslim narrative here. If the BJP manages to successfully tap into that narrative and consolidate itself among Dalits and Adivasis, our party's footprint in the area is expected to shrink," the leader said.

Moreover, the TMC's current Basirhat MP Nusrat Jahan, who is also a Bengali film actress, has been under attack by the Opposition BJP for "neglecting serious issues faced by women in Sandeshkhali."

"This is another reason the TMC is feeling the heat, as we believe that its hold on the constituency is tenuous at the moment."
A TMC leader to The Quint

"The current situation in Sandeshkhali is the result of our strategy here as well as the neighbouring areas such as Haroa and Minakhan, where there are strongmen from the minority community. This has given space to the RSS to consolidate their presence here. In Sandeshkhali, for the last three to four years, the RSS has regularly organised camps and the TMC leaders from the majority community have allowed them to grow," the leader opines.

Meanwhile, there was a heated exchange of words between Special Superintendent (Intelligence Branch) Jaspreet Singh and BJP leaders, after Singh accused Paul of calling him a 'Khalistani' when he stopped them from visiting Sandeshkhali on Tuesday, 20 February.

Later, in an interview with ABC Punjabi, Singh alleged that it was BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari who made the 'Khalistani' remark against him, who in turn challenged the West Bengal police to prove his allegations within 24 hours.

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