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Calcutta HC Reprimands TMC Government on Sandeshkhali Incidents, Says “Absolutely Shameful if even 1% True”

Calcutta HC Reprimands TMC Government on Sandeshkhali Incidents, Says “Absolutely Shameful if even 1% True”

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Apr 4: The West Bengal Trinamool Congress government led by Mamata Banerjee on Thursday received a stern reprimand from the Calcutta High Court as it heard affidavits seeking probes into the allegations of extortion, land grab, and sexual assault that have surfaced from Sandeshkhali island village in north 24 Paragans district in the state.

Expressing strong displeasure on the contents of an affidavit placed before it alleging sexual violence against the women of Sandeshkhali, a bench led by Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam said if what was stated about Sandeshkhali incident was even one per cent true “it is absolutely shameful” for the state government and the ruling party.

The ruling party particularly came under heavy fire after it was seen as shielding Sheikh Shahjahan, a local TMC leader who is the primary accused in the alleged rape, land grab and extortion cases and rapped the West Bengal government over its claim that the state was the “safest place for women.”

Stating that the ruling party could not shirk accountability in the event the allegations are found to be true, the court said, “Even if one affidavit is correct, it is shameful. Even if one per cent is true it is absolutely shameful. West Bengal says it is safest for women? Even if one affidavit is proven to be right all of this falls,” the court said, “Entire district administration and ruling party have 100 per cent moral responsibility.”

Hearing arguments seeking an independent probe into the alleged instances of violence against women and land grabbing in Sandeshkhali, Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam remarked, “The entire district administration and ruling dispensation must owe a moral responsibility. Even if [the affidavit] 1% is true it is absolutely shameful. And West Bengal says it is safest for women? If one affidavit is proved to be right all of this falls.”

The High Court had in February taken suo motu cognisance of claims of sexual assault on women “at gunpoint” and of the alleged transfer of tribal land in Sandeshkhali. In March, it ordered the transfer of the investigation into the January 5 attack on some Enforcement Directorate officials in Sandeshkhali, allegedly by the goons of Sheikh Shahjahan, to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Sandeshkhali came to limelight when ED officials who had come to Sandeshkhali to raid the TMC’s since-suspended zilla parishad member strongman Shahjahan Sheikh, on January 5, were assaulted. As Shahjahan and his cronies remained on the run, on February 8, the women of the area came out on the streets accusing local TMC leaders of sexual harassment, assault and land grabbing. The chief minister Banerjee, however, slammed the BJP and claimed the Opposition party was spreading fake news on the Sandeshkhali issue. Further, challenging the BJP, Mamata had stated that women were the safest in Bengal.

The High Court also ripped into the lawyer representing Sheikh Shahjahan, who was arrested on February 29 after spending nearly two months evading the authorities. The delayed arrest triggered criticism of the Bengal government and prompted the High Court to issue a pointed order to the state.

“(55) days you were on the run… playing hide-and-seek. Then you took an obscure stance. (Just because) you close your eyes the world doesn’t become dark,” the Chief Justice said. Shahjahan’s lawyer responded: “I was told to be absconding (while) bail plea was pending.” The court eventually reserved its verdict on this matter.

In earlier hearings the court held Bengal Police to be “totally biased” and called for a “fair, honest, and complete investigation” into allegations against Sheikh Shahjahan. “There can be no better case than this… which requires to be transferred (and) to be investigated by the CBI,” it observed.

In focus on Thursday were petitions seeking intervention in some form or the other – either through a court-appointed commission or via the National Human Rights Commission – to allow the women of Sandeshkhali to make their complaints without fear of repercussion. BJP leader Priyanka Tibrewal, arguing for the petitioners, underlined the difficulty many face in filing those complaints.

“I have gone there… it is burdensome for them to come to Kolkata. I have suggested for a website to make it easier for them,” she said in response to the court saying, “The suggestion is to have a commission where people can approach and voice grievances. Other is for NHRC to intervene.”

“Both commission and website can be done. I went alone… I have seen that the rule of law is broken. (This is) not a political opinion. Land was also grabbed. It was a violation of human rights,” she said.

Ms Tibrewal also said she had received complaints from scores of women, but was refraining from naming them over concerns of reprisal. “There was a lady who went to visit her father… she was taken in daylight and raped by (Sheikh) Shahjahan and other workers,” she claimed. Ms Tibrewal’s strong arguments prompted the court’s sharp remark about “moral responsibility.”

In another development, the ED said it had provisionally attached movable and immovable assets worth Rs12.78 crore in connection with the Sheikh Shahjahan case.

The Sandeshkhali issue has become the focal point of attack of the Trinamool. The opposition has accused Ms Banerjee of shielding Sheikh Shahjahan. The Trinamool hit back by pointing to ex-wrestling body chief Brij Bhushan Singh, a sitting BJP MP accused of sexual assault by women wrestlers. The BJP has also moved to field one of the women who have alleged sexual assault by Shahjahan – Rekha Patra – as a candidate from the Basirhat seat, which includes the island of Sandeshkhali.

Meanwhile, days after Bengal Education Minister Bratya Basu labelled him as ‘insane’ amid discussions on the operational confusion in state-run universities, Governor C.V. Ananda Bose on Thursday said such remarks came after he had already endorsed names for interim vice-chancellors, as proposed by the minister.

The governor said Mr Basu’s allegations was an attempt to tarnish his relationship with his constitutional colleague, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “Minister Shri Bratya Basu has called Governor ‘insane’ and suffering from Alzheimer. This is at a time when as desired by the HCM, HG has accepted all the 4 names suggested by the Minister for appointment as interim VCs of the vacant universities,” the Raj Bhavan posted on X.

“HG feels that the Minister is spoiling the relation between the HG and HCM HG holds HCM in very high regards,” the post added. The governor’s office also issued ‘strict’ warnings to the VCs who “stall” university activities citing the state education department’s “illegal” order contradicting Supreme Court judgments.

“Chancellor issues strict warning to those Vice Chancellors who scuttle or stall University activities quoting illegal orders of the Department of Higher Education of Govt. of West Bengal, which are contrary to the Supreme Court judgments. This is to protect the interests of the student community,” the post said.

Mr Basu had also accused the governor of taking “illogical and inconsistent steps” with regard to functioning of state universities. Responding to it, the Governor issued a statement affirming his commitment to safeguarding the autonomy of these institutions against government interference.

The governor asserted that the chancellor, as the head of the university, has the right to communicate directly with the VC, and vice versa, without involving additional authorities. He criticised rules passed by the West Bengal assembly in December 2019, which sought to establish an intermediary body between the chancellor and the VC, undermining university autonomy.




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