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Sandeshkhali 'Tape' Casts Doubts on Rape Claims But TMC's Bahubali Woes Remain

TMC has accused the BJP of concocting rape charges to "malign Bengal".

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As a 32-minute “sting operation” uploaded anonymously on YouTube emerged on Saturday, it gave the Trinamool Congress (TMC) fodder to take on an election issue the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been consistently raking up. While the TMC maintains that it has not recorded the video, if sources are to be believed, another similar video may be doing the rounds soon. The party also hopes that the new allegations against the BJP can control damage done by Sheikh Shahjahan- a TMC strongman, now suspended from the party, who is a key player in the Sandeshkhali row.

After the video surfaced, TMC doubled down on the BJP in West Bengal, accusing them of “orchestrating” the alleged rape complaints in Sandeshkhali, thereby insulting Bengal for political gains. It also came out in support of Shahjahan, who, along with his aides, were the main accused in the alleged rapes.

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TMC on the Offensive

The party has used its “Bangla Birodhi” (Anti-Bengali) plank to attack the BJP- its tandem with its Bengali sub-nationalism campaign theme this election season. In a press conference in Kolkata on Saturday, TMC national General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee even named national media houses which had reported on Sandeshkhali to say that they ran the news of mass rapes in the village without much verification.

The most viral clip from the video, uploaded on YouTube, and whose authenticity too is yet to be ascertained, shows a sting operation on Gangadhar Koyal, BJP’s Mandal president for Sandeshkhali Block II. In the clip, Koyal says that BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari and his personal assistant brainwashed women to file false rape complaints to get rid of the “strongmen” in the area. Another clip from the video shows a woman saying she signed on her rape complaint without understanding what she was signing on. Koyal further says that the complainants received 2,000 rupees each for doing so. The arms cache that was discovered in the home of Shahjahan’s aides in Sandeshkhali last week, by the CBI, was also an orchestration, he said.

The BJP, on the other hand, has said that Koyal’s voice has been distorted by the TMC and political consultancy firm Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) to undermine the women of Sandeshkhali. They have written to the CBI regarding the same.

After the Sandeshkhali row broke out two months ago, the TMC had suspended Shahjahan from the party for six years. While the NCW received two complaints of rape from and a total of 18 complaints from the area; the TMC government received over 700 complaints of land grab. Over 250 such complaints were acted on with the local administration returning land grabbed for fisheries to villagers.

In his press conference, Abhishek said that Koyal accepted that Suvendu wanted to create fake cases of rape and land grab to take down Shahjahan. The raid by the Enforcement Directorate to arrest Shahjahan in a ration scam, happened after, he said.

“By trying to belittle Trinamool, you have belittled Bengal”, said Abhishek, reading out headlines in the national media over the last few months.

He also regretted suspending Shah Jahan.

“It would have been good if we had investigated a little further (before the suspension)”, he said.

The new video gives the TMC a shot in the arm to disprove the BJP which has kept up a sustained attack on the party alleging that women’s safety is a matter of concern in West Bengal. However, if one were to look at all the events that led to this point, it also shows that Sheikh Shahjahan and his free reign over Sandeshkhali, leveraged by the BJP, was what motivated villagers to file such complaints, even if they were allegedly false.

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The Chronology of Sandeshkhali

The women of Sandeshkhali, a village about 70 kilometres away from Kolkata, in the state’s South 24 Parganas district, came out in protest against Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar in January, claiming mass molestation and land grab. They got the courage, ostensibly, after a team of ED officials landed up in Sandeshkhali a few days earlier to arrest Shahjahan, a local strongman and TMC’s block president for Sandeshkhali, in an alleged scam. However, the ED officials were attacked by villagers- Shahjahan’s men- when they came to make the arrest.

After the attack, Shahjahan went absconding, to be found a month later, after evading arrests by both the state and central authorities. He was thereby suspended by the TMC for 6 years, as he was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar were arrested a couple of weeks earlier.

All the reports that emerged out of Sandeshkhali in the two months after the protests started- including that of The Quint- had a few similar themes.

First, no women came out and claimed that they were raped.

Second, there was a constant refrain among the women that Shahjahan and his goons forced them to abandon housework and go to party offices at night to cook for them. The women said that they were also forced by these men to turn up for party meetings and rallies, failing which their families would be targeted and beaten up.

Third, almost all the women complained of a systematic procedure of land-grab, orchestrated by Shah Jahan and his men.

The Quint also interviewed women, including now BJP candidate Rekha Patra, who claimed that they had been molested or misbehaved with by Shahjahan’s men. However, they did not allege rape.

After the suspension, the emergence of the video on Saturday saw the party coming to Shahjahan’s defence.

In spite of returning land to villagers, the party also claimed that apart from the rape, the allegations of land grab were fabricated too.

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TMC’s Bahubalis

When The Quint visited Sandeshkhali, almost two months after the protests began and after Shahjahan was arrested, the women held a very specific sentiment- they said that Shahjahan had created many other Shahjahans who would come back to avenge him.

This specific sentiment speaks to a culture of local strongmen or bahubalis who have been nurtured by the TMC in various parts of the state. And when it came to matters of the law, these bahubalis have also landed the TMC in trouble.

Take former TMC district president for Birbhum, Anubrata Mandal, for example. An old hand of Mamata Banerjee’s, Mondal’s image as a strongman was first built in the state when in the 2013 West Bengal panchayat poll campaign, he asked his supporters to burn down houses of political opponents and hurl bombs at the police if they tried to stop the arson. At the time, instead of criticising Mondal, Mamata Banerjee had said made light of the statement saying that he had a medical condition called hypoxia because of which he sometimes doesn’t make well thought-out statements.

In all subsequent elections, Mondal’s strong-arming tactics made the news as his party swept Birbhum. In 2022, however, he was arrested by the ED in a cattle scam case, months after his named appeared in the Bogtui killings, where eight people were burnt alive in a fight between to rival groups in Birbhum.

Similarly, TMC strongman from the state’s Bhangar, two-time MLA Arabul Islam, was arrested by the state police earlier this year for his alleged involvement in the murder of an Indian Secular Front (ISF) worker in the panchayat polls last year.

While TMC may find the allegations of hundreds of rapes over many years easy to disprove after this new video, its problem with out-of-hand strongmen remains endemic

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