Sandeshkhali unrest: Is the BJP trying to do what Mamata did in Singur?

In 2010-11, Mamata Banerjee used public anger to turn a local stir into a mass agitation, leading to a historic dethroning of the Left Front

West Bengal governor C.V. Ananda Bose (photo: @BengalGovernor/X)
West Bengal governor C.V. Ananda Bose (photo: @BengalGovernor/X)

Yajnaseni Chakraborty

With the Sandeshkhali saga now well and truly under the national spotlight, this unremarkable village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district will, according to media reports, witness a visit by BJP national president J.P. Nadda with a team of six MPs on Friday, five of them women.

What began as an agitation against land grabbing and forced labour by Sandeshkhali’s controversial TMC (Trinamool Congress) leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his associates Shibaprasad ‘Shibu’ Hazra and Uttam Sardar has now primarily become a protest against alleged sexual atrocities perpetrated on local women by the three men, with the state’s opposition parties and even governor C.V. Ananda Bose jumping into the fray to condemn police inaction and administrative negligence.

Quite a few reports have quoted political observers who feel that with the upcoming Lok Sabha polls in mind, the BJP is making an attempt to turn Sandeshkhali into another Singur, a village in Hooghly district where the Tatas were seeking to build a Nano plant in the face of resistance from local farmers whose land the Left Front government had acquired.

The resulting movement in 2010-11 saw Mamata Banerjee effectively utilise public anger to turn a local stir into a national headline-grabbing agitation, which eventually led to the historic dethroning of the Left Front after 34 years in power.

Will Sandeshkhali turn into Singur? At a press conference in Kolkata on Wednesday, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh pointed out that neither the West Bengal Commission for Women nor the National Commission for Women (NCW), both of which sent teams to Sandeshkhali, succeeded in recording any specific complaints of sexual assault, about which a section of women residents has been fairly vocal in front of TV cameras as well as the governor during his visit.

Even if one were to accept that the women were afraid to submit specific complaints to the commissions, Ghosh said, why did the local units of the BJP and CPI(M) — the state’s two principal opposition parties — not flag the problem earlier, given their hyper activity now?

Part of that ‘hyper activity’, at least for the BJP, seems to be a desire to turn the stir into something bigger. In 2011, protests from the then opposition (primarily TMC) over Singur and a similar land dispute in Nandigram of Purba Medinipur district shook the Left foundation in West Bengal, and though the BJP was not a force to reckon with in the state at the time, it is quite possibly looking at Singur-Nandigram as a model of sorts.

The similarities are certainly evocative. TMC was the opposition during Singur-Nandigram, the BJP is it during Sandeshkhali. For the past two days, BJP leaders have repeatedly tried to enter Sandeshkhali, and been repeatedly stopped by the police. In protest, they have squatted on the highway, just as then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee and other TMC leaders did during Singur-Nandigram.

Senior state police officials present in Sandeshkhali have unofficially said the attempt to turn Sandeshkhali into Singur on the strength of alleged sexual misdemeanours alone may be unrealistic. Singur, they point out, was a far more ‘emotive’ issue, raising questions about the very survival of an entire agrarian community. By comparison, the alleged financial and sexual misconduct of one absconding party leader simply does not come up to scale.

That hasn’t prevented the BJP’s senior central leadership from trying. Union women and child welfare minister Smriti Irani has been vociferous in her condemnation, in which she was counter-attacked by now expelled TMC MP Mahua Moitra.

In a post on X, Moitra wrote: “BJP controlled NCW visited Sandeshkhali & NO reports of rape anywhere. Police taking action on all other reports of violence. Meanwhile BJP netas exposed in their PR efforts to magnify issues with fake propaganda.”

Attached to Moitra’s post is an unverified audio clip, purportedly of a phone conversation between BJP leader Agnimitra Paul and an unnamed man, in which Paul clearly states her party’s intention to try and turn Sandeshkhali into Singur.

In a possible attempt to take the wind out of the opposition sail, the district TMC unit has formed two internal investigation committees, according to local media reports.  

Alongside, the TMC-led Zilla Parishad has taken the initiative to invite all villagers who received land on lease in the area but were unable to record it with the land and land reforms department, to do so now. These plots of land are the ones alleged to be forcibly occupied by Shahjahan, Hazra and Sardar, who was recently expelled from TMC and is now in police custody.

Of the twin committees, the district-level committee includes fire minister Sujit Bose, food minister Rathin Ghosh, education minister Bratya Basu and district unit president Narayan Goswami. The second, village-level inquiry committee includes Sandeshkhali Gram Panchayat deputy head Ganesh Halder, Panchayat Samiti member Ashtami Sardar and TMC’s SC-ST-OBC cell leader Maheshwar Sardar. According to party sources, arrangements are being made to compensate villagers in consultation with Sardar’s family members.

Zilla Parishad sources say the villagers who could not get their land registered have been invited to the home of the Zilla Parishad president on 19 February, with Goswami volunteering to bear their travel and food expenses.

“I will talk to the officials of the district land office and arrange to record their land. I will go to both blocks of Sandeshkhali on 20 February with the district magistrate. Any land-related irregularity will be investigated. We have also asked for a list of people who have not received their rent. It is the party’s responsibility to return that money,” Goswami has been quoted as saying by local media.

Sandeshkhali first came to the nation's attention when an ED (Enforcement Directorate) team attempted to raid premises belonging to Shahjahan on 5 January, but was beaten back by a large mob of presumably TMC supporters. On 8 February, another mob, this time largely comprising women armed with bamboo sticks, knives and machetes set fire to a poultry farm, residence and farmhouse belonging to Hazra.

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