NEW DELHI, Feb 12: Tensions simmered in Sandeshkhali in south West Bengal close to Bangladesh border as Governor CV Ananda Bose made a hurried visit to the troubled region which has been in the eye of a political storm over the allegations of women who have accused a local Trinamool Congress leader of systematic sexual exploitation.
The man in question, Zilla Parishad member Sheikh Shajahan — also accused of land grabbing — is on the run. He is wanted by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with an alleged PDS scam.
The governor, who cut short his trip to his home state Kerala to visit Sandeshkhali, pledged justice for the women who claimed to have suffered abuses, even as six BJP member of the state Assembly faced suspension for unruly behaviour while raising concerns about the situation in Sandeshkhali in the State Assembly.
Protests persisted in Sandeshkhali for the fifth consecutive day on Monday with a significant number of women taking to the streets, demanding the arrest of TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his alleged “gang.” The accusations include forcefully capturing land and sexually harassing women. Mr Sheikh wanted since a mob attacked the officials of the Enforcement Directorate at his residence in the ration scam, has been absconding since last month.
Governor Ananda Bose expressed dismay at the events unfolding in Sandeshkhali. Visibly shaken by the situation, the governor expressed shock and pledged support to the aggrieved women. “What I saw was ghastly, shocking, shattering to my senses. I cannot believe this could happen in Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore’s land,” Mr Bose told reporters, vowing to address the issue within the constitutional framework and the laws of the land.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, downplayed the significance of the Governor’s visit, and said, “We have already arrested those against whom there have been allegations,” before leaving for a programme in Hooghly district. She said the state women’s commission has also visited the area and spoken to the people.
The Union Minister Smriti Irani slammed the Mamata Banerjee government over the Sandeshkhali incident claiming that “young Hindu married women” were being targetted by Trinamool Congress goons. Sandeshkhali, an island in Sundarbans close to the Bangladesh border, has been placed under Prohibitory Orders banning large gatherings.
“Young Hindu married women are being deliberately targetted,” Ms Irani alleged, reading out what she said were the women’s version of events as told to the local media. That Mamata Banerjee “will now allow her men to pick out young Hindu married women to be raped night after night in the TMC office cannot be articulated in mere words. Can we as citizens be mute spectators?’ she said.
Over the last days, a large number of women in Sandeshkhali, armed with sticks and brooms, have been holding protests, alleging that Sheikh Shajahan and his “gang” have captured swathes of land by force, and are sexually exploiting them. In a video that’s being widely circulated online, a woman alleged that they are being dragged off to the Trinamool office, kept overnight and sexually assaulted. The women have demanded the arrest of Sheikh Shajahan. Ms Irani said the agency has given a police statement that three of the officials were injured in the stone throwing that took place in Sandeshkhali.
Earlier in the day, senior BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari and other MLAs of the party were stopped from visiting the area by the police, who cited the prohibitory orders. In the state Assembly, the BJP MLAs demanded a response from Banerjee, leading to a chaotic scene. Adorning ‘We are with Sandeshkhali’ T-shirts, the BJP members sat on the floor of the House and indulged in sloganeering.
Despite appeals by Speaker Biman Banerjee, the BJP MLAs remained defiant and continued with their protests. Following this, the Speaker allowed state Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sovandeb Chatterjee to move a motion for the suspension of the BJP legislators. Six BJP MLAs, including Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, were suspended for the remaining part of the current session or for 30 days, whichever is earlier.
Mr Adhikari remarked, “We feel proud that we have been suspended for standing by the people of Sandeshkhali.” TMC chief whip Nirmal Ghosh accused the BJP of wanting to disrupt assembly proceedings. After the suspension, Mr Adhikari and the other BJP MLAs boarded a bus to go Sandeshkhali and meet locals who have alleged sexual harassment by absconding TMC leader Shahjahan Sheikh and his supporters. “The authorities stopped us at Basanti Highway citing prohibitory orders there and a letter by the Basirhat police Superintendent claiming that my visit to Sandeshkhali might lead to law and order problems in the area,” Mr Adhikari said. “This is absurd. How can I be stopped 65 km away from Sandeshkhali citing law and order problems? We condemn this attempt by the State government to suppress the truth,” he said.
Undeterred, they staged a sit-in on Basanti Express Highway, condemning what they perceived as government suppression of truth. In response to mounting public anger, the TMC announced that a delegation led by senior leader Partha Bhowmick would visit Sandeshkhali to assess the situation on February 13.
The Sandeshkhali block, known as a fisheries hub, has been embroiled in controversy since the assault on ED officers during the raid on Mr Sheikh’s residence last month. Despite the suspension of local TMC leaders, discontent over atrocities by local leaders persists among the residents.