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Lok Sabha 2024: Sheikh Shahjahan Has Triggered an Uprising in South Bengal

The author could feel a palpable outpouring of anger among ordinary Hindus. Enough is enough, they say.

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Opinion
4 min read
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(This is the 14th in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters get ready to celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

(Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here, part eight here, part nine here, part 10 here, part 11 here, part 12 here, and part 13 here.)

The request was explicit: “Dada, please remove the press sticker from your car and also keep your press ID card in the hotel room before coming to our village”.

In almost two months of my travels across India, I had never received a request to “hide” my press credentials while visiting a place. But then this is West Bengal where ordinary folks remain terrified of goons swearing allegiance to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

But even as they are terrified, people, particularly Hindus, are rising in revolt against the egregious excesses of the likes of Sheikh Shahjahan, who in recent times shot to infamy along with an obscure place called Sandeshkhali.
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A brief background first. Our domestic help Malati (name changed) has been with us for 15 years and has become a de facto member of the household. She comes from a village in Basirhat, a city not far away from Sandeshkhali. Her elder sister and other family members stay in the village. Malati is a Modi fan but is not going back this time to vote for the Lok Sabha elections. She had voted in the 2021 Assembly elections and alleges that TMC goons had burnt down half their village after the elections.

The request to relinquish my media credentials in the Kolkata hotel came from her elder sister Durga (name changed) who lives in the village (I have been requested not to take the name of the village). The roads to Basirhat from Kolkata are pretty good and there is not much traffic early in the morning.

After a few frustrating failures with Google Maps, I resort to my half-baked Bangla and ask locals for help and directions. Eventually, we reach the village where Durga has told neighbours that the “Saheb” for whom Malati works is coming to pay respects. There is a cluster of colourfully attired women standing in front of Durga’s house.

Once the greetings are done and I hand over a saree (the women promptly start gushing in Bangla about it) to Durga, we move inside to an expansive living room. There are only two males in the gathering, Durga’s husband and father. Once the polite small talk is over, there is a torrent of words from the women of the village. I request them to speak slowly and in Bangla so that I can understand.

Pushpa (name changed) is the first to speak. Confident she can trust those inside the room, she describes in graphic detail how she was publicly stripped and molested, allegedly by TMC “workers” after the 2021 Assembly elections in front of her husband and children. She says she is lucky her house was not burnt down and she was not carried off to the local TMC leader’s house to teach her a lesson. Not all the women of her village and those in nearby villages were so lucky.
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Tales of gang rape are still talked about in hushed voices. Not a single TMC worker or leader in the Basirhat cluster of villages has been arrested. Sunaina (name changed) alleges that TMC goons demand and forcibly take away a share of whatever money they get via many welfare schemes. Not paying tola money is not an option as “punishment” is swift and brutal.

Sanhita (name changed) talks about the first revolt during Durga Puja in 2023 when there was an “order” from Kolkata to discourage the trouble-seeking Muslims from disrupting the festivities. Mamata Banerjee and the TMC are big patrons of Durga Puja pandals across West Bengal.

After that, some brave women stopped paying tola money. There were threats galore, but groups of women started confronting the goons in open defiance. A “revenge” attack was imminent, they say. But then supporters of Sheikh Shahjahan attacked and injured a team of ED officials.

Despite the best efforts of TMC and the administration, the floodgates were opened and the world came to know how Shahjahan and his henchmen not only sexually assaulted women at will, but also forcibly took over their land.

Since then, women in Basirhat refuse to be cowed down by the thugs. The author could feel a palpable outpouring of anger among ordinary Hindus. Enough is enough, they say.

But fears persist. Durga sounds a note of caution and reminds her neighbours of 2021. “The central forces went away after the elections were over. Central forces will again go away after 4 June. What do you think the goondas will do after that? Who will protect us?”

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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