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Unrest in Bengal's Sandeshkhali as Women Allege Sexual Assault by TMC Leaders

Several women claimed that they were allegedly molested by local TMC leaders in West Bengal's Sandeshkhali.

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(Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual harassment. Reader discretion advised)

"Women here cannot live in safety. We women fear going out. We want safety," a woman resident from Sandeshkhali told Aaj Tak Bangla on 14 February, Wednesday.

A village in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, Sandeshkhali has been witness to huge protests for over a week by women residents who are alleging atrocities and sexual harassment committed against them by local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders.

Several women claimed that they were allegedly molested by absconding TMC leader Shahjahan Sheikh and his two aides on several occasions, The Indian Express reported.

The incident has led to a political slugfest between the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – further intensified on Wednesday, 14 February, after fresh prohibitory orders were clamped in and around the violence-hit village.

As BJP MLAs staged a walkout from the West Bengal Assembly on Thursday, 15 February, CM Banerjee said that "none involved in any wrongdoing will be spared."

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What Are the Allegations?

On 8 February, women in Sandeshkhali took to the streets with brooms and sticks, demanding the immediate arrest of Shahjahan and his two aides Shiba Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

The women accused the leaders of land-grabbing and sexual coercion. They alleged the TMC men called them to resorts, party offices, or school buildings under the garb of late-night meetings, IE reported.

They also claimed that the women were chosen and taken to the local party office, confined there and released only after the TMC members were "satisfied," news agencies reported.

Speaking to The Indian Express, a woman said:

"They used to call us for meetings – sometimes of the SHG and sometimes of the party. Our husbands were not called. When we went there, there was a quick 'party meeting' saying we will have to work for its victory. Some of us cooked and a section of women, including me, were told to stay back. They would pull my saree and touch me inappropriately. I kept quiet because I knew what would have happened if I protested."

While the women alleged that Shahjahan had "exploited" them for years, they kept silent "out of fear," since he had significant power in the area.

The women claimed they gathered courage to speak only now since Shahjahan, who has been absconding ever since the Enforcement Directorate raided his home last month, "was no longer a threat," IE reported.
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When Did the Protest Turn Violent?

On 9 February, the protestors allegedly attacked properties belonging to Hazra and set fire to his poultry farms on fire, news agency PTI reported.

On Tuesday, 13 February, tensions simmered during a protest by BJP workers led by state party president Sukanta Majumder, when the workers clashed with police personnel. The police claimed the protesters pelted stones at them and several cops were injured, NDTV reported.

While addressing reporters, Majumdar, also a Lok Sabha MP, was injured on Wednesday after losing balance and falling on a car's bonnet, following which he was taken to a hospital.

The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday, 14 February, took suo motu cognisance of the matter and quashed the imposition of Section 144 across the area, stating that such orders should be only implemented in areas identified as "troubled zone."

Meanwhile, West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose submitted a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs, blaming the police for working hand in glove with "rowdy elements" in the area, news agency PTI reported.

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What Did the Police Say?

A special 10-member team led by DIG CID Soma Das Mitra has been formed to probe the incident, PTI reported.

Speaking to mediapersons on Wednesday, Inspector General of Police (IGP) of Barasat Range said, "Normalcy has been restored at Sandeshkhali. The situation is under control. However, police deployment will continue for some more time," as quoted by PTI.

On Wednesday night, the West Bengal police, in a tweet on 'X' (Formerly Twitter), also denied reports of allegations of rape of women in the violence-hit village.

The police said:

"It is reiterated that no allegations about rape of women have so far been received during the enquiries since conducted by the State Women's Commission, an all-women 10-member fact-finding team led by DIG CID, and also the district police. The representatives of the National Women’s Commission, following a recent visit to Sandeshkhali, have also corroborated this, saying that they did not receive any complaints of rape of local women during their enquiry. It is reiterated that all allegations and complaints received will be duly enquired into and lawful action will be initiated."
West Bengal Police in a tweet on X

After BJP IT Cell Head Amit Malviya claimed women from Sandeshkhali were "forcibly taken away", the West Bengal police refuted the allegations and said, "nothing can be farther from truth"

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BJP Attacks Govt, TMC Calls It 'Conspiracy' by Opposition

The BJP hit out at the ruling TMC over the allegations of sexual harassment and demanded a statement from CM Mamata Banerjee.

Addressing a press conference in New Delhi on 12 February, Union minister Smriti Irani said:

"From Sandeshkhali, women from the SC, ST, fishermen and farming communities, while speaking to the media, have said that TMC men come to their homes to check which woman is beautiful and young. The women of Sandeshkhali and their husbands have told journalists that local TMC men boast that Hindu women’s husbands would be husbands only in name, but won't have any rights (on their wives)… Sandeshkhali women are crying out for help and protection."
Smriti Irani

Suvendu Adhikari, the BJP's Leader of Opposition in West Bengal, wrote on X on 11 February, "Sheikh Shahjahan and his gang established a ‘reign of terror’ where the dignity and modesty of women from the SC and ST communities have been repeatedly violated."

Meanwhile, BJP president JP Nadda has constituted a six-member committee of party MPs, five of them being women, who will on 16 February visit Sandeshkhali, PTI reported.

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After the Opposition staged a walkout of the Assembly, CM Banerjee said that 17 people have been arrested so far, adding that "no one involved in any wrongdoing will be spared."

"We are looking into Sandeshkhali situation. A women police team is visiting people at their doorsteps to listen to their grievances. We will definitely address the issues that will be reported. I need to know the matter to act on it. I have never allowed, will never allow any injustice to anyone," Banerjee said in the Assembly, as quoted by news agency ANI.

TMC spokesman Kunal Ghosh alleged that this "sudden outburst" of angst by the local women is actually part of a conspiracy hatched jointly by the BJP and the CPI(M), news agency PTI reported.

"Neither the members of the West Bengal Commission for Women, nor those from the National Commission for Women were able to get any specific complaint from any victim alleging sexual harassment. Hence, we believe that the allegations are nothing but part of negative propaganda to deliberately tarnish the image of the state government," Ghosh said.

(With inputs from PTI, Bar & Bench, Indian Express, NDTV)

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Topics:  BJP   Mamata Banerjee   Trinamool Congress 

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