Thursday, April 25, 2024

An Island Of Despair

With tensions reaching the sky, the Calcutta High Court’s decision to allow opposition politicians to visit Sandeshkhali in West Bengal has thrown some light into the area’s sordid incidents

By Sujit Bhar

Do Sandeshkhali and the sordid incidents surrounding this island in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal represent the absolute nadir in Indian politics? With details about what happened in that remote place in the Sunderbans area out in the open, the only part that stands out is the horrific fact that women of that area had been molested and raped for years on end by local Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Sheikh Shahjahan and his henchmen Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

That changed the complexion of the issue to such an extent that the Calcutta High Court Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam, replying to BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s request for permission to visit Sandeshkhali—he was initially prevented by West Bengal Police, who said that the area was under section 144—said: “We have seen the grievances, the women of the area have flagged issues, there has been some land grabbing. This person (Sheikh Shahjahan) cannot be on the run. The state cannot support it. In the suo motu matter, we will ask him to surrender here. He can’t be defying law.

“If one person can hold the entire population to ransom, the ruling dispensation should not support him. He is just a representative of the public. He is bound to do good to the public,” the chief Justice of the High Court added.

The Court pushed open the door to Sandeshkhali and all hell broke loose. When the local administration was goon-infested, when the local police was adamant that none of the horrific truths should come out of the area, the Court maintained its neutral stand, ultimately leading to the arrest of Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar. Shahjahan’s arrest is delayed, his party possibly keeping him out of the dangerous communal line of fire that the BJP has been promoting.

The issue has, expectedly, become huge, and with the general elections around the corner, the BJP wants to keep the flames lapping the shores of this distant place which, otherwise, is not just a TMC stronghold, but a place beyond maps.

Elections come and go, but the big losers from this would be neither the TMC, nor the BJP or even the Left Front. This is a complete loss for the already depraved residents of this island.

Shahjahan is a product of the Left Front, a person of small means, riding high on ambition. The first thing that the Left Front did was their famous “barga” movement, in which land parcels were reduced to even smaller parcels and then handed out to labourers, virtually cutting out the owners. Great initiative, except for the fact that in these areas, the land itself is less that fertile, salination being a constant threat, and when the land parcels grew smaller, yield dropped disastrously. Ordinary people were left with very little means to survive.

Shahjahan and his henchmen migrated smoothly into the TMC ranks and moved quickly into the only profitable venture possible in these areas—fisheries. Fisheries, too, had to be in saline water, good for prawn growth, good for the market, good for the pocket. Local people, for whom those small parcels of land were all they had, never wanted to risk their livelihoods on some business they knew nothing about. Hence saline water was let into these agricultural lands on the sly and the crops died. Slowly and with force, the land was taken out of their control.

The food chain

At the bottom of this was the dire need of the TMC to feed its cadres. Through over a decade of rule, the party failed to find a viable solution to feed the multitude of its voters, but more importantly, it could not even provide for the active workers who brought the party votes. When the likes of Shahjahan showed a tried and tested me­thod of funds, the existing local TMC workers were quickly moved out of the way, giving all powers to this goon-gang.

One has to remember that it was only now that many people of Sandeshkhali first saw the face of Sukumar Mahato, the local MLA, sent there to bring things under control. The state’s DGP, Rajeev Kumar, visited the area and gave a veiled threat to the media that what should come out are only well-vetted (read approved) news items and nothing more.

Land grabbing is commonplace in West Bengal’s mofussil and rural areas. With little by way of industry and any steady source of revenue, TMC workers have an almost carte blanche from the state administration to use all scarce resources within the state to generate funds. That is the basic survival tactic of the party, a system that had been perfected by and then handed down from the CPI(M), which TMC removed to institute “paribartan”, or change.

According to human rights activists Bolan Gangopadhyay, this is not restricted to Sandeshkhali. “If it can happen in Sandeshkhali, it can and does happen elsewhere, in other rural areas of the state as well,” she said and she is right. Land grabbing is commonplace in every district of the state, wherever land prices have reached any enviable level.

The tip of the iceberg

Land apart, every other avenue of skimming existing revenue sources are taken into consideration. This was the way through which this entire sordid episode came to light. The public distribution system scam that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had chanced upon, and for which ED officials were beaten up by goons of Shahjahan on January 5, was the opening salvo that opened the gates to hell.

Shahjahan and his henchmen were skimming off 200 grams from a kg of PDS rice and selling it off in the open market at high prices. This was a steady source of revenue for the fund-starved state. According to ED, this scam had amounted to a huge Rs 20,000 crore over the years.

Illegal sand mining was another by-product of the entire land grab methodology. When existing land was taken over and converted into a pond, the existing silt and sand was mined and shipped out. That ensured that the land, once taken from agriculture, would never be able to return to any productive form other than used for fisheries.

The entire agricultural ecosystem was destroyed, the livelihoods of an entire generation was destroyed.

SC/ST area

Sandeshkhali is a predominantly Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes area, the people being installed there through the British ryot system, a parallel system to zamindari, in which the labourers and individual owners could become more active participants. These were the papers that gave the Left Front’s “barga” movement life.

The area around the Sunderbans was always full of people who had come in from other areas in India and Bangladesh and had settled down, using mainly agriculture as a livelihood. When political goons started cutting off the safeguard of mangroves, the entry of saline water was the next step. The process was irreversible. The destruction of the area was complete.

The communal angle

In the midst of this incredible tragedy, now comes another inhuman face of politics. Union minister Smriti Irani has complained that Shahjahan and his men have been selecting Hindu women of the area and raping them. Shahjahan is a goon, a beast, but the entire area is 95% Hindu and this is a rabid claim. Politics, however, knows no boundaries, especially when the elections are around the corner. The BJP wants 35 parliamentary seats from West Bengal this time, and wants to keep this flame alive for as long as it can.

Within these extreme pressures, the people of Sandeshkhali have now realised that their future has been destroyed. No amount of external balm can bring peace or life back to where it was a decade or more back.

The courts have, at least, opened the doors to some sanity. This has to be used with care and used fast.


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