Sandeshkhali Rebellion: TMC's Stronghold Faces Unrest Amid Electoral Uncertainty

Sandeshkhali Rebellion: TMC's Stronghold Faces Unrest Amid Electoral Uncertainty

Attempts to turn it into a communal issue seems to have lost steam as the goons who were arrested as well as the victims, came from both the communities Hindus and Muslims.

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Thursday, April 25, 2024, 01:06 PM IST
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The ticket seller at the Dhamakhali ferry-ghat(jetty) hands out small slips of bright pink paper with the word 'Sandeshkhali' written on it, regardless of the island you wish to travel to. Welcome to the Sunderbans – a mosaic of inhabited and forested islands of Sundari trees and muddy water creeks and rivulets which lead to the Bay of Bengal. It may be the focus point of a rebellion against Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress cadres for the lumpen culture that some of them have come to represent.

The decrepit motorised wooden boat chugs away through the silvery waves of the lazily flowing Kalindi river towards the green tranquil islands which have gained notoriety on India's news channels for exposes on TMC musclemen accused of large-scale land grabbing and molestation of women.

The three 'sister' islands - Sandeshkhali, Bhangatushkhali and the largest of them all Baro Tushkhali - all of which form part of the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency already have a festive air with TMC, BJP and the odd CPIM bunting and flags fluttering in the breeze. None would guess that these islands, a hop, step and jump away from Bangladesh, witnessed a tumultuous 'revolt' a few weeks ago of ordinary peasants against musclemen who have dominated the area for decades spanning Left Front and TMC rule.

Twenty five years ago Sahajahan Sheikh and his friends Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra were nobodies. In CPM's time they became somebody in the fish trade and when elections came they would organise the muscle, by the time Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011, they were on her side, explained Nemai Jena, who runs a popular tea shop at Baro Tushkhali.

With power came arrogance and greed for more power. Land parcels were grabbed and turned into saline water prawn fisheries, a state government built market was named after Sahajahan, while his followers blared a song over microphones saluting him as their "Shahenshah (emperor)". It all burst ahead of the Parliamentary polls and people spoke out in front of television cameras about their mafia-like grip on this corner of Bengal. "Sahajahan & Co." absconded and a police force which had turned a blind eye to their depredations started a flurry of searches and arrests, albeit late in the day. It was a rebellion against strong-arm tactics of TMC's local workers.

The BJP seized the opportunity and went to town with the story. A victim of Sahajahan's violence, Rekha Patra, a housewife in her late 20s has been fielded from the Lok Sabha constituency which goes to polls in the seventh phase. "I am fighting for the area's mothers and sisters," she told reporters earlier this month. "For the first time opposition party flags can be seen on our island," said Arjun Mondol,a boatman.

However, attempts to turn it into a communal issue seems to have lost steam as the goons who were arrested as well as the victims, came from both the communities Hindus and Muslims. The BJP looks like winning hands down in the Sandeshkhali block, but TMC seems to have an edge in the overall Basirhat constituency, partly thanks to the nearly 53 per cent Muslim voters that this border constituency has.

Replacing a movie star with a minority community strongman Haji Nurul Islam as candidate is expected to help the party retain this seat despite the acute embarrassment Sandeshkhali has caused to Banerjee. TMC party strategists at the "war room" near at Kolkata's Kalighat are worried though: will the "rebellion" against party cadres down below, spread? Secondly, while the cases of corruption, exposes of large caches of money found with TMC leaders have rocked the state, it has hardly ever dented Mamata's rock solid votebank - women. Will it remain with her after Sandeshkhali with its tales of molestation and allegations of rape by musclemen as punishment?

The general consensus in rural Bengal till now is that while many TMC local leaders may have their hand in the till, 'Didi' (Banerjee) remains Teflon coated and is the one who has given them schemes like 'Lakshmir bhandar' and 'Kanya Shri' which puts money into the pockets of women householders and students. Clean roads (the Basanti highway from Kolkatato Dhamakhali is better than the streets in city's suburbs), an efficient health care system and improved schools, are other pluses on Didi's balance sheet.

"Welfarism is a fact of Indian electoral politics and Banerjee has been particularly good at promoting it," said Prof Ranabir Samaddar, former head of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Calcutta.

The percentage of women who voted TMC increased from 41 per cent to 47 per cent between the 2016 assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, according to data compiled by Lokniti Centre for Study of Developing Societies. This went up to a record 50 per cent in 2021 state assembly elections. Comparatively, percentage of men who voted TMC increased to 46 per cent in 2021. Possibly with an eye on this data, BJP has been targeting the Sandeshkhali expose asa reflection of TMC's anti-women attitude. As evening sets in, a drumroll is played out on a microphone before an announcement is made of an upcoming election meeting. The game is on.

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