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'He Was God Here': Despite Sheikh Shahjahan's Arrest, Sandeshkhali Lives In Fear

The Quint's ground report reveals how the shadow of Sheikh Shahjahan continues to haunt Sandeshkhali.

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On the face of it, Sandeshkhali looked like it was back to normalcy. Media presence had reduced, the shops were open and a steady stream of people moved from the pier into the village in the Sunderbans. However, residents say that as night falls, a familiar fear comes back to haunt.

Even after the arrest of suspended Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman Sheikh Shahjahan last week, the people of Sandeshkhali are worried that he may come back to take revenge. Shahjahan, who’s under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in an alleged ration distribution scam, has been accused of extortion, intimidation, land grab and sexual assault by the villagers of Sandeshkhali in a protest that was spearheaded by women. The protests first led to the arrests of Shahjahan’s two aides- Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra. Finally, Shahjahan was arrested by the West Bengal police last Thursday after he’d been absconding for 55 days. He was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation on 6 March.

When The Quint visited Sandeshkhali the day after Shahjahan’s arrest, the women who were part of the protest spoke about Shahjahan’s “body language” when he was being taken to court after his arrest.

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'I Have Created Many Sheikh Shahjahan's Here'

“His body language… the way he was wagging his finger at the police, it seemed like he’ll come back to take revenge. He may even kill us. Even if he’s in jail, he will try to influence things from there. That’s why we are still in fear”, said Minoti Patra (named changed), one of the protestors.

“We were happy when we heard he was arrested but we are still not at peace. Sheikh Shahjahan said that even if I die, I have created many Sheikh Shahjahans. His people are still at large. We fear what they will do to us”, she added.

Minoti’s neighbour, Rakhi Patra* (name changed), shows her bruised face to make the same point.

The Quint's ground report reveals how the shadow of Sheikh Shahjahan continues to haunt Sandeshkhali.

(Rakhi Patra* says women are too scared to show their faces)

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

“We spoke to the media and told them our grievances. We didn’t understand at the time that we should have hidden our faces else they’d target us and ruin our lives. Whoever spoke to the media was threatened with murder. I was assaulted on the streets and beaten up."
Rakhi Patra (name changed), resident of Sandeshkhali

She also criticizes the ruling TMC government’s apparent apathy towards the victims of Shahjahan’s reign of terror.

“Since we have covered our faces, the Chief Minister (TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee) called us outsiders. But if we reveal our faces, they are targeting us”, she said.

‘He Was God’

Residents of the village still recall Shahjahan’s absolute power over the economy, society, and politics of the area.

Sandhya Sinha, a resident of the village, recalls how her family was beaten up when they’d gone to ask for wages after having worked in Shahjahan’s fisheries.

“We are being tortured for 12-13 years. Initially it was less, they had shown us some hope of a good life. After that the incidents of harassment of women, land grab, forcefully converting agricultural land to fisheries and encroaching land to build poultry farms began”, said Sinha.

“We thought that if we work for him, our households will run. When we asked for money for the work we’d done, we’d be beaten. You must keep working but you can’t ask for money. Here, he was the God.”
Sandhya Sinha, resident of Sandeshkhali

Close to where Sandhya lives in the home of Chandana Patra (name changed). When The Quint arrived at her doorstep, Chandana refused to talk even though she had done television interviews before. Since then, she says she’s received threats and hence does not want to narrate the story anymore. After some coaxing, she opens up about her ordeal eight months ago.

“I was sitting on the side of the road. My son had gone for tuitions and I was waiting for him. It was about 8-8.30 in the night. Three people came- I won’t name them. They saw me sitting alone and held me by the hand. They started dragging me away. When I shouted, they put their hand over my mouth. They dragged me some distance. Then when we came to a place where there were streetlights, I saw one of the men’s faces. We recognised each other. Then they let me go”, said Chandana.

The incident has left her and her family traumatised.

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Other villagers narrate stories of intimidation and violence.

Sometimes women would be forcibly taken to party meetings late at night, and to party rallies at other times.

“If we didn’t go to a party meeting or a rally, they would send people to our house to threaten us and torture the men. They’d threaten to kill our children and burn them alive. They even threatened kids coming back from school”, said a woman protestor.

“We had complained to the police but the police did not register our complaint. They didn’t stand by us. They didn’t help us”, she added.

The villagers now want Shahjahan to be handed over to a central agency.

“The state police will not be able to punish him. We have no faith in the state police. We went to them multiple times and asked them to solve our problems, but they did nothing. In fact, they asked us to go to Shahjahan Sheikh and Shibu Hazra. It is they who hid Shahjahan for so long. Else he would have been caught days ago. It’s after we put pressure that they caught him”, said another protestor.

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‘Took Away Our Lands, Didn’t Let Us Vote’

The Sandeshkhali island is on the outer fringes of the Sunderbans delta, constantly battered by storms and cyclones. The area, in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, is a TMC stronghold. The chief source of livelihood here is agriculture and fishery.

Villagers in Sandeshkhali claim that Shahjahan and his aides forcefully converted their agricultural land to fisheries. They were, thereafter, not given lease money for the land they’d given up. The work they did in the fisheries were also not paid for.

“They asked us if we wanted to give up the 2 bighas of land that we owned. We said no and then one day we saw that they had inundated our land with saltwater. Then they said do what you want to. When our family members went to protest, they were beaten up”, said Ranjana Singh, one of the protestors in Sandeshkhali.

The Quint's ground report reveals how the shadow of Sheikh Shahjahan continues to haunt Sandeshkhali.

Fisheries and agriculture are the main sources of livelihood in Sandeshkhali. 

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

“They told us that they will give us lease money but that too we never received”, she added.

Agricultural land becomes uncultivable once saltwater is introduced to it. After the protests, over 250 villagers have reclaimed their land with the help of the Bengal government. Now, water is being pumped out of these lands so that the villagers can begin cultivation again. But it will take a while till the land is ready. After the water is pumped out, the villagers will have to wait for monsoon rains for the salt to be washed away and for the land to become cultivable again, if at all.

It's not just landgrab. Villagers also alleged intimidation during voting for local body and assembly elections.

“We would go to the polling booths, they’d put the ink on our finger and ask us to go home. We wouldn’t be allowed inside the booths. Anybody who protested would again be beaten up or threatened to be expelled from the village”, said Mamoni Sinha, who insisted that she did not want her identity to be concealed.

“Our movement- the women’s movement- will continue till Sheikh Shahjahan is given a death sentence. If anyone tries to do this with us again, they should know what the women of Sandeshkhali can do”, she added.

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