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Pratyush Deep

Sandeshkhali simmers amid a ‘fabricated rape complaint’, and TMC vs NCW

“We have been silent all these days but we were compelled to come out after receiving threats from local BJP people,” claimed Anjana*, the daughter-in-law of a Sandeshkhali local who has withdrawn her rape complaint against Trinamool Congress strongman Sheikh Shahjahan.

Three women constables have been deployed for the past three days at the hamlet where the family lives, in the shadow of a war of words between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The island housing the village, in the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency, has emerged as a focal point of the poll campaign in West Bengal following allegations of sexual exploitation.  

The TMC has accused the BJP of hurting Bengali pride with “fake allegations”, while the saffron party has hit back with remarks about “political patronage” to goons, “lawlessness”, and a “threat” to sexual violence survivors. 

The BJP has rejected the claims made by the woman complainant and slammed the Mamata Banerjee-led government for spreading misinformation. 

The National Commission for Women has also sought a probe into the matter by the Election Commission, claiming that women are being “compelled” to withdraw their complaints by TMC workers in view of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls. The TMC, in turn, has accused NCW chief Rekha Sharma of “abusing her authority and being involved in a conspiracy” in Sandeshkhali and said it will knock on the EC’s doors.

Meanwhile, there’s suspicion on the ground in Sandeshkhali, with locals not willing to speak on camera about the alleged sexual exploitation.

The National Commission for Women has also sought a probe into the matter by the Election Commission, claiming that women are being “compelled” to withdraw their complaints. Meanwhile, there’s suspicion on the ground in Sandeshkhali,

‘Truth will be unearthed’

The TMC had earlier released a “sting” video where a local BJP leader was purportedly heard saying that the Sandeshkhali allegations were made in return for bribes by BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari. Four days later, hours after a complainant retracted the rape charge, an old video was circulated online, showing the BJP’s Basirhat candidate Rekha Patra questioning the identity of “rape survivors” who were taken to Delhi by BJP functionaries to meet President Droupadi Murmu. “We are the real survivors, who are they,” Patra purportedly asks in the video.

In a video message on Friday, Patra said the TMC is trying to “disrespect” the movement of “‘mothers and sisters” in Sandeshkhali by using an old video of her. She also claimed the state police had asked her to  withdraw her FIR against Sheikh Shahjahan.

BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Shamik Bhattacharya said the BJP is not ready to make any comment on the woman who has withdrawn her complaint as they believe  that they were compelled by the “situation”. “We know the limitations and compulsion of the victims. They are all women and we are very much sympathetic to them. That is why we are not ready to give any comment on the victims of Sandeshkhali,” Bhattacharya told Newslaundry. “Truth will definitely  be unearthed.”

Political slogans on the walls in Sandeshkhali.

‘Made to sign a blank paper’

Anjana claimed they withdrew the case within a few days of learning the contents of the FIR lodged in the name of her mother-in-law. “On February 19, when (NCW chief) Rekha Sharma came here,  we went to a police station to file a complaint. It was  there she was made to sign a blank paper and later a case was registered,” she claimed.

Sunita*, who is also the complainant’s daughter-in-law, claimed that the complaint was only supposed to be about alleged land grab and corruption and these were the issues for which they protested earlier in Sandeshkhali. She claimed that BJP leader Priyali Das, locally known as Mampi, took them to the police station where they signed a blank paper. And it was only a week later that they realised it was a rape case when the police came home, she claimed.

“I felt very bad that my mother-in-law was facing various atrocities…I could not accept it and asked my mother-in-law about the case…She was also not aware that such a case was made in her name. She told me it was Mampi who took her to the police station. Then she went to Mampi and requested her to withdraw the case as she was not feeling good about a fake case. But Mampi refused,” Sunita claimed, adding that the family had been threatened after withdrawing the case.

The family claimed that Priyali Das had threatened to demolish her house and get the complainant killed. “This is why we have filed a complaint against them in the local police station and police have provided us with security.”

Police are yet to act against Priyali Das.

While the exact number of complaints regarding sexual crimes are not to the public, and the CBI is probing the matter, NCW chief Rekha Sharma had earlier said that she had received two complaints of rape during her visit to Sandeshkhali. 

‘What matters to parties is politics over women’s bodies’

Meanwhile, in Sandeshkhali, political workers as well as locals are tightlipped on the sexual assault allegations, after the two videos.

“We don’t know you! How do we know if you’re also doing some kind of a sting with us like what happened with Gangadhar (a local BJP leader in a purported sting video),” said a local TMC leader, cautioning a fellow party worker who was speaking to Newslaundry

BJP’s Basirhat candidate Rekha Patra, who has become the face of Sandeshkhali, has been speaking about the issue in her campaign while invoking the dignity of women as an issue. But locally, more than Sandeshkhali, what has triggered more resentment are the issues of land grab and corruption.

Seema, who runs a shop in Sandeshkhali, said the area faced many instances of land grab. “But I have not heard about the sexual exploitation thing from others.”

“I ride an e-rickshaw here all day but never ever come across this kind of thing. Had it been happening at a large scale, we would have heard of it from someone for sure,” an e-rickshaw driver claimed.

Himangshu, a local trader, said the sexual harassment allegations against the local TMC leadership must be true if women have spoken out. “If they are claiming it, it must be true. We faced a lot of trouble because of Shahjahan and his cohort.  They often forced us to close our shops in the name of meetings or protests, and we had to obey.”

While residents hesitate to speak on the issue of sexual exploitation, the slogans on the walls in many villages in Sandeshkhali indicate the divide.

The slogans in favour of Patra talk about mothers, cows, and land, while those in favour of TMC speak of the Mamata Banerjee government’s schemes, inflation, and the BJP’s 2014 “jumla” about redistributing black money as Rs 15 lakh payments to each Indian.

“If Mamata resigns, then only people can survive,” reads one in the island of Sandeshkhali-2. “You play with coal, you play with cows, you play with river sands; you didn't even spare mothers and sisters, says Sandeshkhali.”

In Patra’s home Patrapara, one slogan says, “The angry people have lost power. The religion of Jai Shri Ram will prevail.”

A BJP slogan says it’s “enough of Juraphul (the TMC poll symbol), this time lotus will bloom”. The TMC’s counters: “many lotuses have bloomed, but it is Trinamool which will win.”

“People of Sandeshkhali are calling. Where did Rs 15 lakh go?” reads another. 

Meanwhile, Sikha Mukharjeee, a columnist in West Bengal, believes the videos are nothing but politics over a woman’s body. 

“Initially there was an ED raid and Sheikh Shahjahan’s followers stopped the ED from performing its duty. But after the charge of  sexual exploitation emerged in Sandeshkhali, what has been playing out is politics over women’s bodies. While BJP is making one kind of claim, Trinamool is making a different kind of claim.”

“Nobody cares about the trauma of these women. What matters to these political parties is how politics can be played out over their bodies.”

*Names changed to protect identity.

There’s no better time to underline the importance of a free press. On World Press Freedom Day 2024, power the independent media.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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