Sandeshkhali: Begging for Justice

The harrowing details of sexual violence that have emerged from Sandeshkhali in West Bengal are deeply shocking, enough to shake the collective conscience of any civilized society.
Keywords: Sandeshkhali, Bengal, Sexual, Violence, Clash, Shocking, Justice
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The harrowing details of sexual violence that have emerged from Sandeshkhali in West Bengal are deeply shocking, enough to shake the collective conscience of any civilized society; the fact that it occurred in the reign of a democratically elected government makes it even more disconcerting. While it’s uncertain if any religious motivations were at play in this case, the ‘systemic sexual exploitation’ inflicted upon the women of Sandeshkhali undoubtedly highlights a sordid tale of lawlessness in West Bengal.
The women of Sandeshkhali, as reported by various media outlets, have endured unspeakable savagery at the hands of a local gang lord, Shah Jahan Sheikh, who is also implicated in cases of land grabbing, money laundering, and other serious crimes in the region. Sheikh, a Trinamool Congress leader, first came into the spotlight in 2019 when he and his associates were implicated in the murders of BJP workers Sukanta Mandal and Pradip Mandal. He is also a prime suspect in multiple other murder cases. A feared figure, he has been able to instill a reign of terror in the North 24 Parganas district, leveraging his influence within the local administration and the ruling establishment.

Significantly, the majority of the victims of Sheikh’s appalling barbarity were mostly women from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, who, unable to muster the courage to speak out against him, endured years of suffering. The plight of hapless women living through the worst forms of persecution in a state governed by a female chief minister makes it truly a monumental tragedy.

Despite the unrestrained brutality, Mamata Banerjee’s party and her government maintained a grotesque silence which can be interpreted as tacit support for Sheikh’s criminal actions. To believe that the West Bengal government was unaware of Sheikh’s atrocities would require complete obliviousness to facts and realities. The truth is that the state government was well aware of the situation and allowed it to continue for political reasons, and even now, when the matter has come to light, Mamata Banerjee and her party aides are attempting to brazen it out, turning it into a political slugfest. Claiming that a “sinister design is at play,” she has accused the BJP and other opposition parties of fomenting trouble in the state.

Here, it is crucial to acknowledge that West Bengal has a long history of political violence. Spanning the rule of the Left government from 1977 to 2011 and continuing into the post-2011 TMC government, the state has been a breeding ground for a culture of violence in politics. From the Sainbari murder in 1970 to the Marichjhapi massacre in 1979, the Bijon Setu massacre in 1982 where 17 monks belonging to the Hindu religious cult Ananda Marg were killed in broad daylight, the killing of 13 youth Congress workers in Kolkata in 1993, the lynching of 11 landless Muslim labourers at Suchpur village in Birbhum district in 2000, to the killing of over 50 people in Nadigram in 2007-08, West Bengal comes across as a state whose political foundation is deeply entrenched in a culture of violence. Even the recent Panchayat polls in West Bengal were marred by substantial violence, resulting in the deaths of over 40 people.

The two major political parties of the state, the CPI-M and the TMC, which have collectively ruled the state for nearly five decades, share the blame for institutionalising a culture of violence using the state apparatus. However, it would be a grave mistake to dismiss the events unfolding in Sandeshkhali as merely a continuation of the culture of violence in West Bengal’s politics. Instead, they represent a much-deeper rot.

There is no denying the fact that under Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal has earned the dubious distinction of being the state with the most oppressive government in the country. Mamata Banerjee, who campaigned in 2011 promising to make the state violence-free, has unfortunately overseen a serious deterioration in political freedom. In her 13-year rule, the political opposition has relentlessly been targeted by the TMC goons, and there have been concerted attempts to muzzle free voices. The condition of women is particularly worrisome as violence against them has grown manifold in recent years.

Who can forget the post-poll violence unleashed in the state after the 2021 assembly elections? Hundreds of BJP workers were specifically targeted and assaulted, with their residences being ransacked by TMC cadres. A fact-finding report by the civil society group Call for Justice, led by former Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court Justice (Retd) Permod Kohli, revealed a staggering 15,000 incidents of post-poll violence, which included 25 deaths and 7,000 cases of women being molested. In a democracy, it is inconceivable to be forced to flee your home due to threats to your life for supporting the Opposition. Yet, this unthinkable reality is a stark truth in Mamata Banerjee’s governed state.

Interestingly, the intellectual brigade, which doesn’t miss a single opportunity to criticize BJP-led governments even for minor transgressions, has largely been missing in action this time around. No opinion pieces are being published, no agitations being staged, no obituaries of constitutional ideals being written, and no concerns being raised about “the signs of fascism” being visible in the state.

Overall, their silence on this matter speaks volumes about the politically motivated agitations and selective outrage prevalent in political discourse. Their attitude in the current instance is also a stark reminder of their deafening silence in similar cases of atrocities in the past, highlighting a pattern of inconsistency and bias in their advocacy for justice and accountability.

Despite attempts by a section of the intelligentsia to gloss over the failures of Mamata Banerjee’s regime, the fact remains that as the executive head of the government, she has repeatedly violated the constitutional sanctity of her office. There is an urgent need to acknowledge the deteriorating political conditions in West Bengal and hold those responsible accountable.

Dr. BR Ambedkar wrote, “A just society is that society in which ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into the creation of a compassionate society.” The women of Sandeshkhali have demonstrated immense courage by speaking out about the injustices they have endured. Now, as a civilized society that values its constitutional principles, we must step forward to ensure that they receive the justice they deserve. Women of Sandeshkhali are begging for justice, their voices of agony must not be drowned out by the noise of everyday politics.

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Abhijeet Sriwastava

Abhijeet Sriwastava is the Head of Policy Research of Bihar Bharatiya Janata Party.

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