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Sandeshkhali: West Bengal village in the eye of a political storm

What happened?

Protests against Mr Sheikh began in January when India’s financial crimes agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), attempted to question him in connection with corruption allegations.

The case involves another TMC leader Jyotipriya Mallick. A former state minister, he was arrested in October for allegedly diverting funds of the public food distribution system or rationing networks to private parties. Mr Mallick denies the allegations, calling his arrest a “political conspiracy”.

According to the ED, Mr Sheikh who is the leader of a small administrative block in Sandeshkhali, was allegedly a close associate of Mr Mallick.

When ED officials and paramilitary personnel raided Mr Sheikh’s home on 5 January, his supporters gathered there and allegedly attacked them to prevent his arrest. Mr Sheikh escaped in the melee which ensued.

With Mr Sheikh gone from the village, a few women gathered to protest against him for “terrorising” them over the past decade.

While the agitation made some news, it died down eventually – until it resurfaced in February with renewed vigour.

This time, several women came out and accused Mr Sheikh and his supporters of allegedly molesting them.

The leaders would “summon good looking women at odd hours at night” to the TMC office, the women alleged, adding that men in their families were allegedly beaten up “if they refused to do the bidding” of Mr Sheikh and his supporters.

BBC Bangla spoke to several women who reiterated the charges, even though they did not identify any survivors of the alleged sexual assault.

Villagers have also accused Mr Sheikh of amassing huge wealth – including three houses, commercial fish ponds, and large swathes of land – by illegally encroaching land owned by them.

Since the allegations came to the fore, several villagers in Sandeshkhali have reportedly reclaimed their properties after the West Bengal government started the process of returning their land to them.

Mr Sheikh has not commented on the charges as he had been “absconding” until his arrest, according to the police. But his aides Mr Hazra and Mr Sardar have denied the allegations.

Shahjahan Sheikh at an event
Image caption,Mr Sheikh was on the run for 50 days before he was arrested

But who is Shahjahan Sheikh?

Mr Sheikh is a village-level leader of the district’s fisheries and animal husbandry department.

Reports say he worked as a helper in the local fisheries and later became a supporter of Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), which was in power in the state a decade ago.

With the help of an uncle, who was a village leader of the CPI(M), Mr Sheikh reportedly built his clout in the party for years, before he joined the TMC in 2013.

TMC leaders claim that his area of influence has been confined to Sandeshkhali where he is known as a businessman who rose from humble beginnings.

“During the past decade not a single person complained against him or his aides. How can that be if he was guilty?” TMC spokesperson Arup Chakraborty told BBC Bangla.

Mr Chakraborty alleged that “communal forces” were trying to create unrest in the state ahead of the elections.

But the BJP, which has been at the forefront of protests against Mr Sheikh, has been asking how he could avoid arrest if he did not have clout in the state’s ruling party.

As Sandeshkhali remains a political flashpoint, even the communist parties have staged protests against the TMC for allegedly continuing to support Mr Sheikh.

Several villagers whom BBC Bangla spoke too said they felt “wronged by their own party”.