Houses gutted, at least eight confirmed dead and three in hospital, villagers fleeing out of fear. Tragedy struck Bogtui village on the outskirts of Rampurhat town in West Bengal’s Birbhum on the night of Monday, 21 March, following the killing of one Trinamool Panchayat leader, Bhadu Sheikh.
Police recovered the charred bodies of at least eight people on Tuesday, 22 March, after miscreants allegedly set fire to the houses of Sona Sheikh, Mihilal Sheikh, Fatik Sheikh, and Banirul Sheikh, supposedly distant relatives of Bhadu Sheikh, in what police suspect is in retaliation to his alleged murder.
While a Special Investigation Team investigates the incident and has made 20 arrests at the time of writing this article, we look at who Bhadu Sheikh was and the chronology of events that led to the violence.
Who Was Bhadu Sheikh?
Bhadu Sheikh hailed from Bogtui village near Rampurhat in Birbhum.
Bogtui village has two localities – the Purbapara (eastern locality) and the Paschimpara (western locality). Sheikh was from Paschimpara but several of his supposed relatives including Sona Sheikh, Mihilal Sheikh, and Banirul Sheikh lived in Purbapara.
According to locals, Bhadu Sheikh used to be initially associated with the Congress before he switched over to the TMC after they won the Assembly Elections in 2011. Since then, he had steadily grown to become an influential person in Birbhum’s Rampurhat.
As he grew in power and influence, he became a strongman for the TMC. To become a strongman in Birbhum, you would have to have the blessing of TMC Birbhum district president Anubrata Mandal, who runs the show in the area.
Many allege that Sheikh made a lot of money by extorting truck drivers carrying sand and stone chips. In 2018, he was elected as a member of the Barshal gram panchayat and was made the deputy chief, uncontested.
Birbhum, a TMC stronghold, is known for political violence and the 2018 Panchayat polls were no exception. Opposition leaders were attacked every time they tried to file nominations.
TMC leaders were accused of unleashing brutal violence against opposition parties in the election in which Sheikh emerged victorious.
A distant relative of Sheikh had even refused to work with him, alleging that he indulged in corrupt practices and was scared that Sheikh would make him do the same too. The relative was allegedly thrashed by Sheikh’s men in January.
His rise also came with several enemies along the way, who apparently did not like his growth and influence. Maybe that’s why he was always seen moving with at least 10-12 bodyguards.
His brother Babar Sheikh was killed on 5 January 2021. Locals allege that Bhadu Sheikh's rivals were behind this.
The Chronology of Events
According to police sources, Bhadu Sheikh was killed on Monday, 21 March, at 8:30pm when he was at his usual tea-stall. He moved away from his guards to take a phone call, when six to seven attackers came in motocycles and hurled crude bombs at him. The assailants fled the scene immediately.
Sheikh was pronounced dead after he was brought to the government hospital in Rampurhat.
Around 9:30 pm, the locals of Purbapara, saw “a mob charging towards them” with crude bombs and “all elements needed for arson”.
Mihilal Sheikh, an eyewitness of the incident, was hiding a few meters away from his house with his brother to save themselves. He tells The Quint that his wife (Sheli Bibi), daughter (Tuli Khatun) and five other family members were inside the house when attackers allegedly locked the house from outside and started hurling crude bombs at the house. While his wife and family members couldn’t survive, his daughter did.
Around 10 houses were allegedly set ablaze by the mob. Police say that most of these houses had women and children in them.
Locals have also alleged that the firefighters were blocked by villagers from entering the village to douse the fire.
While it is not yet been established that the two incidents are linked, locals allege that the violence happened in retaliation to Sheikh’s death. Sona Sheikh and Fatik Sheikh, both of whom are now absconding, have been accused in Bhadu Sheikh’s murder.
Seven bodies were recovered from Sona Sheikh’s house. Fatik Sheikh’s wife Meena Bibi succumbed to her injuries at the hospital on Tuesday morning.
Sheikh’s brother Jehangir, when talking to The Indian Express said that Sona and Fatik used to be Bhadu’s friends and colleagues, but they fell apart as he grew in power. He even alleged that he had gotten a call from them threatening to kill his brother.
Meanwhile, Sheikh’s wife Tebila Bibi tells The Quint that she demands a CBI investigation into the matter. Alleging foul play, she accuses the victims of setting fire to their own houses. She further added that the wrong people have been arrested, and that they should be immediately released.
Within hours, an SIT was formed, led by CID ADG Gyanwant Singh and comprising IGP (Burdwan) Bharat Lal Meena and DIG (CID Operations) Meeraj Khalid.
The Rampurhat sub-divisional police officer Sayan Ahmed and Rampurhat police station IC Tridib Pramanik were suspended.
Meanwhile, the Calcutta High Court on Wednesday, 23 March, took suo moto cognisance of the matter and directed DGP Manoj Malviya to ensure that the witnesses are given protection. It has further directed the state government to file a report before the court by Thursday 2 pm.
DGP Manoj Malviya said that all angles are being probed, and while a political angle to this can be ruled out, a personal enmity side must be considered.
However, opposition parties and the WB Governor have called the Trinamool Congress out regarding the ‘lawlessness’ and ‘increasing violence in the state’.
Some, like Telangana BJP MLA Raja Singh, have tried to give a communal colour to the incident by saying that Hindus are unsafe in Bengal. This is despite the fact that all those killed are Muslims.
Locals told The Telegraph that the village has historically had two political groups who have always been at odds with each other. Previously they were part of the Left, but switched allegiance towards the TMC, but their rivalry never stopped.
WB CM Mamata Banerjee who will be visiting the crime scene on Thursday, 24 March, said that none of the culprits will be spared. She also accused the opposition of politicising the incident.
Meanwhile, Mondal has blamed the whole incident on a “short-circuit” and “TV explosion”. He has not made any comments ever since.