West Bengal | A storm in Sandeshkhali

Sandeshkhali, in South Bengal, has always been in the eye of a storm. The riverine area, resting cheek-by-jowl with the Sunderbans and the sea, has long been pummelled by cyclones. But the continual tempest of tyranny that villagers, especially women, allege has been lashing them for over a decade has only just ceased. By all accounts, it’s a tale of subverting justice and the wheels of administration for personal gain and influence. The undisputed villain of the piece, they say, is local Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman Sheikh Shahjahan and his followers. The most damaging charge levelled against him: persistent sexual assault and abuse of women. As news of Shahjahan’s arrest broke, it was women who burst into celebration, splashing colours and distributing sweets. And as india today visited the hamlet of Sandeshkhali—which is criss-crossed by rivers, making it practically an island—and neighbouring villages, it was women who spoke up most readily. They had reason to feel vindicated. Ask Urmila Das of Jeliakhali village, whose son has been on the run since Shahjahan’s motorbike-borne men beat him up for not meeting their demands. Or her neighbour Shefali Das. “TMC men would ask us to attend party meetings. They would come at night and take us to party offices,” she recalls. What happened at many of those meetings has made national headlines. “If they come out (of custody), they will kill us all,” Shefali expresses her worst fears. Urmila and Shefali allege that all law and order issues would be directly or indirectly dealt by Shahjahan and his men, whose writ ran unopposed in these parts. Dissenters would be brutalised.

TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan being produced in court after his arrest, Feb. 29

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