'43 FIRs in 4 Years': The Controversial Rise of Shahjahan Sheikh in Sandeshkhali

Last week, the TMC strongman was arrested from a hideout in Minakhah in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district.

5 min read

The absolute power of Shahjahan Sheikh in Sandeshkhali – a nondescript village bordering the Sundarbans in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district – has earned him the moniker 'Betaj Badshah' aka 'uncrowned king'.

Siddiqullah Chowdhury, an MLA from Monteswar constituency in West Bengal and a prominent Muslim leader in the state, got a taste of Shahjahan's power back in 2021.

An aide to Chowdhury, who did not want to be named, told The Quint that about 200 people armed with bamboo sticks stopped Chowdhury's convoy on Basanti Highway when he was on his way to Sarberia village, two hours from Sandeshkhali.

Chowdhury, who is the president of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind's West Bengal unit, wanted to deliver relief material in Sarberia to help families in the aftermath of Cyclone Yaas. But Shahjahan, the upa-pradhan (deputy head), allegedly refused to let him enter the village.

The aide claimed that the locals told Chowdhury it was the 'Betaj Badshah's area' – and that no one could distribute any relief material there.

"Chowdhury tried reasoning with them but the mob vandalised the vehicles in the convoy and looted the relief material. They pushed and shoved the minister and even threatened to kill him. Chowdhury was rescued by a team from the Nazat police station and escorted back to Kolkata. He informed the police and the party higher-ups, but nothing happened to Shahjahan."
The aide alleged

After the incident, Basirhat District Police Superintendent Jobi Thomas had told Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika: "There was no news of the minister's (Chowdhury's) arrival. There was a huge crowd that had gathered to receive relief material in the aftermath of the cyclone. So, the police went to the spot thinking that tension might spread due to it. They escorted the minister (Chowdhury) safely to Basanti."

This isn't the only instance of Shahjahan's power.

In 2019, Kaushik Bhattacharya, the then Sandeshkhali-II block development officer (BDO), was allegedly assaulted in his office by goons backed by Shahjahan and his aide Shibu Hazra for declining to clear a fabricated Rs 1 crore bill, relating to the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

According to The Telegraph, even as Bhattacharya exposed Shahjahan's parallel administration in the area, he was transferred to another district a few days after the assault. Later, after a complaint, Shahjahan and his men were forced to return to the treasury a large sum they had been accused of embezzling – but he were spared any legal action.

Charting Sheikh's Journey from a CPM Activist to a TMC Strongman

Much like in the movies, Shahjahan's journey has been one from rags to riches. An acquittance of Shahjahan, who did not want to be named and who has known the Sheikh family for decades, told The Quint that Shahjahan, who is the son of a marginal farmer and the eldest among his siblings (he has three younger brothers), started off by doing odd jobs, including washing cars in Sarberia.

"He also worked as a driver and a helper to trekkers," they said.

He joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2013. But his political journey had begun more than a decade ago with the CPM. He joined the CPM in 2000 – thanks to the influence of his maternal uncle Moslem Sheikh who was a panchayat-level CPM leader.

In the early 2000s, he became the leader of a brick kiln union that was affiliated with the CPM.

Over the next decade, the acquaintance added, Shahjahan emerged as a strongman of the area populated by fishermen, farmers, and daily wage workers, and he even controlled the bheris (fish farms).

Shahjahan always had a business acumen, they said, adding, "He gradually entered the fish trade in 2004 with baby shrimps and started controlling the fish farms in the area. His business empire started growing slowly, and he also started building his own army comprising village youths. He used to keep in touch with local party leaders and help them during elections."

And then in the early 2010s, there was a change in the political landscape in West Bengal. And, as a local Bengali channel put it, "Shahjahan could sense these winds of change that was about to engulf the state from early on."

A senior TMC leader, who did want to be named, told The Quint that it was Shahjahan's ability to deliver fiery speeches that brought him to the notice of TMC leaders Mukul Roy and Jyotipriya Mallick (who is currently in jail on graft charges).

"Mallick played a crucial role in bringing Shahjahan into the TMC's fold. Mallick realised that Shahjahan would help the party garner the votes of the minorities in Sandeshkhali. Shahjahan played a vital role in the TMC's victory in the Lok Sabha constituency in 2019. And in turn, he was rewarded with a ticket for the panchayat elections last year and he emerged victorious," the leader added.

He was made the upa-pradhan of the panchayat and then the chief of the party's Sandeshkhali unit.

In 2022, he won a seat in the Zilla Parishad. By then, "he had under his control about 200 fishery units, local wholesale fish markets, processing centres for baby shrimps, and supplying them to fish farmers in all corners of the state," the TMC leader added.

43 FIRs Against Disgraced Leader

On the morning of 29 February, Shahjahan was arrested from a house in Minakhah in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district. He had been on the run since massive protests by women were witnessed in Sandeshkhali earlier this month.

State advocate general Kishore Datta informed the Calcutta High Court that 43 FIRs involving Shahjahan were registered in the last four years. While the police have submitted chargesheets in 42 cases, he has been shown absconding in some.

In documents he submitted during the 2023 panchayat polls, Shahjahan claimed to be a businessman with an annual income of around Rs 19.8 lakh and bank deposits of more than Rs 1.9 crore. A father of three children, Shahjahan owns around 43 bighas of land (worth around Rs 4 crore) and a house in Sarberia, worth around Rs 1.5 crore. He also owns at least 17 bikes.

After his arrest, Additional Director General of Police (South Bengal) Supratim Sarkar told the media that he had been arrested in a case which occurred on 5 January, wherein Enforcement Directorate (ED) officers were assaulted during the course of a raid. On sexual assault complaints, the ADG said that there were many cases – and most of them happened around two years back.

"Many cases that surfaced on 7, 8, and 9 February pertain to incidents that happened two to three years back. So, investigating them and gathering evidence will take time," he added.

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