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Sandeshkhali Evokes Memories of Nandigram. Can Mamata Quell Women's Fury?

Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom.

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Sandeshkhali, once a sleepy village in West Bengal, now flickers with flames that illuminate a deeper fire – the disillusionment of Mamata Banerjee's very own. Smoke curls from the ashes of trust, fuelled by the harrowing narratives of women, her staunchest allies, now turned adversaries by the alleged atrocities within the party they believed in.

This isn't just a political inferno; it's a personal betrayal writ large.

The flames lick at the core of Banerjee's identity – the champion of the downtrodden. Women, once the bedrock of her support, now stand at the forefront of dissent, their voices echoing the cries of Nandigram, a specter haunting her reign. Their pain hangs heavy in the air, a potent weapon wielded by the Opposition, waiting to strike at the heart of her support base.

To quell this inferno, mere pronouncements won't suffice.

Transparency, swiftness, and empathy are the fire extinguishers she needs. A transparent investigation, conducted with genuine concern, is crucial to rebuilding trust with her core voters.

Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom.

BJP leader Agnimitra Paul with others addresses the media after being stopped by the police from visiting Sandeshkhali village after recent alleged atrocities, including sexual abuse, by some TMC leaders against the villagers, in North 24 Parganas district on 16 February.

(Photo: PTI)

Ignoring their cries would be political suicide, yet appeasing them risks alienating the Hindu right, another crucial pillar of her support. This is a tightrope walk, demanding political finesse and genuine empathy.

Can Mamata rise to the challenge? Can she rebuild trust from the ashes of betrayal? Or will her bastion crumble, consumed by the fire she must extinguish? The answer lies not just in the fate of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) but in the future of West Bengal itself.
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Sandeshkhali is a crossroads, a moment of truth. Will Mamata emerge as the phoenix, stronger and more resolute? Or will she fade into the smoke, another casualty of the flames she failed to control? Only time will tell.

But one thing is certain: the embers of Sandeshkhali will continue to glow, a stark reminder of the fragility of trust and the power of dissent.

Sandeshkhali in Brief

Sandeshkhali, a village in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom, marked by unprecedented protests stemming from allegations of sexual abuse levelled against a prominent local TMC leader.

Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom.

West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose gets a 'rakhi' tied by a woman at Sandeshkhali block, in North 24 Parganas district, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. Bose visited the trouble-torn block in the district on Monday and spoke to women protestors who alleged sexual harassment and torture by absconding TMC leader Shajahan Sheikh and his associates.

(Photo: PTI)

The turmoil began with a raid conducted by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on 5 January at the residence of Sheikh Shahjahan, a TMC strongman implicated in a multi-crore ration distribution scam.

Shahjahan's associates allegedly obstructed the ED's entry and assaulted officers, leading to heightened tensions. Subsequently, numerous women from the community stepped forward, accusing Shahjahan and his cohorts of forcibly seizing land for prawn cultivation and subjecting them to years of torture and sexual harassment.

Their harrowing accounts detail a pattern of exploitation and abuse, with allegations extending to other TMC leaders, including Uttam Sardar and Shibaprasad Hazra.

In response, women took to the streets, wielding bamboo sticks and brooms, demanding the immediate arrest of the accused. The situation escalated when protesters burned down poultry farms allegedly owned by Hazra. Opposition parties have seized upon the unrest to intensify calls for justice, accusing the TMC of shielding perpetrators for political gain.

The gravity of the situation has prompted West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose to intervene, expressing shock and dismay at the atrocities uncovered in Sandeshkhali. Amid mounting pressure, Banerjee assured that those responsible would face consequences, as police arrested individuals linked to the allegations.

Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom.

West Bengal Governor CV Ananda Bose interacts with women protestors at Sandeshkhali block, in North 24 Parganas district, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. Bose visited the trouble-torn block in the district on Monday and spoke to women protestors who alleged sexual harassment and torture by absconding TMC leader Shajahan Sheikh and his associates.

(Photo: PTI)

But at the same time, she alleged that the BJP and RSS have orchestrated these protests.

Despite police actions and visits by women's and SC/ST commissions, tensions persist, with the Calcutta High Court intervening to revoke prohibitory orders and demand a thorough investigation into the allegations.

Sandeshkhali stands as a stark reminder of the enduring struggle for justice and accountability in India's political landscape, where the voices of the marginalised continue to demand recognition and redressal.

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Why Mamata Should Worry

In the tumultuous political landscape of West Bengal, the TMC finds itself grappling with a potent undercurrent of fear and uncertainty. Contrary to popular belief, this apprehension is not solely rooted in the state Opposition's resurgence but rather in a groundswell of discontent brewing among women across the state.

Despite the TMC's assertions of an orchestrated campaign, the party has faltered in substantiating these claims, leaving Mamata Banerjee's leadership at a precarious juncture.

Banerjee's decision to chart a solitary course in Bengal, diverging from the grand INDIA coalition, underscores the complex dynamics at play. With the Congress, Left, and Indian Secular Front forging an alliance, the prospect of a significant shift in Muslim votes looms large.

Rampant allegations of corruption and instances of violence targeting minorities have sown seeds of disillusionment, eroding the TMC's traditional support base.

Sandeshkhali, a village in Bengal's North 24 Parganas district, has become the epicentre of a political maelstrom.

Kolkata: People hold a banner during a protest march against Sandeshkhali case, in Kolkata, Sunday, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024.

(Photo: PTI)

The unfolding protests in Sandeshkhali compound Banerjee's woes, posing a threat to her foundational pillars of electoral success: unwavering support from Muslims and women.

While discontent among minorities has long simmered, the burgeoning disillusionment among women poses a novel challenge for Banerjee. Previously shielded from the spotlight, this demographic now emerges as a pivotal force capable of tilting the electoral scales.

The TMC's palpable apprehension underscores the delicate balancing act ahead for Banerjee.

As the spectre of discontent looms large, her ability to navigate the turbulent waters of West Bengal's political landscape will be tested like never before.

In the face of mounting challenges, Banerjee must recalibrate her strategies, forging alliances and addressing grievances, to safeguard her political fortress from crumbling under the weight of public discontent.

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Why Women Hold the Key in West Bengal

For decades, West Bengal's women were pillars of the Left Front. But enter Mamata Banerjee, a fiery leader and champion of the masses.

With the Singur-Nandigram protests, she emerged as a symbol of hope, particularly resonating with women. Her charisma and pro-woman stance propelled her to power in 2011. There are around 3.7 crore female voters in Bengal and around 3.8 crore male voters. 

Banerjee knew she had struck gold. Recognising their electoral influence, she, along with economist Amit Mitra, crafted a unique economic model centered on women's welfare.

Schemes like "Lakshmir Bhandar," a direct cash transfer programme, and "Kanyashree," offering financial support for girls' education, resonated deeply. These, along with other initiatives, transcended religious and caste lines, solidifying women as her strongest vote bank. But can Banerjee rely solely on past successes?

Sandeshkhali's recent protests highlight the need to address women's concerns beyond welfare schemes. True empowerment requires tackling issues like safety and justice. With elections looming, can Didi retain the trust of her "divas"?

Only time will tell if her model has weathered the storm or needs a course correction.

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Can Sandeshkhali Be Mamata's Achilles' Heel?

The echoes of "Singur" and "Nandigram" reverberate in West Bengal as questions arise: can the Sandeshkhali protests become the turning point for Mamata Banerjee's rule?

Unlike Nandigram, which wasn't a singular event, Sandeshkhali stands alone, lacking the historical weight of a sustained grassroots movement. However, early comparisons highlight the TMC's mishandling of the situation. Banerjee's refusal to engage with the opposition, from leader Subhendu Adhikari to fact-finding teams, fuels public unease and strengthens the opposition's narrative.

More concerning is her perceived defence of the accused, Sheik Shahjahan, alienating women crucial to her support base.

The TMC's claim that the protest was orchestrated by the BJP and CPI (M), coupled with the arrests of opposition leaders, creates an image of intolerance and fuels public anxiety.

Additionally, the IT cell's smear campaign against women and media highlighting allegations of "outsiders" further erode trust. Such tactics are failing, and due to such mismanagement, now the opposition is asking for a president rule in Bengal, and even the National SC/ST Commission has already submitted such a request to the President of India. 

While it's premature to draw parallels with Nandigram, Sandeshkhali exposes vulnerabilities in Banerjee's reign. Unrest, coupled with perceived misjudgment and a disconnect with the public's concerns, could create fertile ground for the opposition. Will Sandeshkhali mark a turning point?

Only time will tell. But the tremors are undeniable, and Banerjee's response will be key in determining whether they intensify or fade away. The need of the hour is empathy, dialogue, and tolerence from Mamata Banerjee, which she is unable to present, nor is her party doing so. 

[The author teaches journalism at St. Xavier's College (autonomous), Kolkata, and is a columnist (He tweets at @sayantan_gh.) This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.]

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