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Women in an Indian village were sexually assaulted for years. Now they are fighting back

West Bengal women protest (Screengrab/ DNA)
West Bengal women protest (Screengrab/ DNA)

Hundreds of women from marginalised communities in a small island on the Sundarban Delta have been protesting years of sexual abuse and land grab allegedly by members of the ruling political party.

Sandeshkhali in India's West Bengal, located nearly 75km from state capital Kolkata, has been on the edge for more than a month following protests led by women, who said their cry was dismissed by the police and political authorities.

The women have accused Shahjahan Sheikh, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman, of oppressing people in the village.

Mr Sheikh was arrested on Thursday in a separate case after absconding for nearly two months when India's enforcement directorate officials were assaulted in January by his supporters while carrying out raids in connection with an alleged ration distribution scam.

Two of Mr Sheikh’s aides, Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar, were arrested in February on charges of gang rape and attempt to murder. They have denied the charges.

Protests ensued in the village shortly after the incident and turned violent when women this month burnt down three poultry farms owned by Mr Sheikh's associate, which was allegedly built on land forcibly wrested from locals.

The protesters alleged they were routinely picked up by the men from the ruling party, taken to their office and sexually assaulted. They claimed the local law enforcement officials refused to file complaints against the strongman and his allies.

"I have been dragged to the office more than once at night and assaulted. I was warned that if I complained to the police, they would kill my husband," one of the survivors told The Independent. "This barbarity has been going on for almost a decade now," she added.

Most of the women The Independent spoke to alleged that men in their family have been either warned or assaulted as a repercussion for protesting their advances.

Mr Sheikh and his associates have also allegedly seized over 2,000 acres of land across the village from farmers.

The ongoing protest turned into one of the biggest challenges in over a decade for chief minister Mamata Banerjee – India's only woman chief minister – ahead of the general assembly elections. Ms Banerjee is one of the biggest opposition leaders in India and a staunch critic of prime minister Narendra Modi.

The protesters have accused Ms Banerjee of shielding her partymen, an allegation played up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of Mr Modi's visit to West Bengal on Friday.

"We are scared. Everyone in this village is scared," said a 34-year-old mother of two children. "We had to resort to arson because our backs were against the wall and the police turned a blind eye."

Authorities responded to the mass protests by suspending internet in the village and imposing assembly restrictions in different pockets of the island. The state police arbitrarily detained members of a six-member fact-finding team, opposition lawmakers, politicians and a journalist, either from the island or on their way to Sandeshkhali.

Santu Pan, a reporter with Republic Bangla, was arrested from the island on allegations of trespassing and outraging the modesty of a woman. He was later released after the Calcutta High Court on 22 February issued a stay order on the case.

"I was standing outside the house of one of the strongman's associates and talking to a woman, who was inside the house," he told The Independent, adding that a video of the incident secured his bail.

"On my way back after the day's reporting I was asked by the police to visit the local police station, but I refused," he said. Mr Pan was later arrested and kept in custody for four days.

Mr Sheikh was arrested after the Calcutta High Court clarified that there was no stay on the arrest of the strongman. Charges of attempt to murder among others have been labelled against Mr Sheikh, who allegedly confessed to inciting a mob and orchestrating the attack on enforcement directorate officials in January.

MP Derek O'Brien from the TMC on Thursday said "as always, we walk the talk. We have set examples in the past, and we are doing that again today".

Sukumar Mahata, a TMC Sandeshkhali member, told The Independent that the situation in the village had normalised since Mr Sheikh's arrest.

Mr Mahata said he was not aware of the allegations till the official police complaints against the accused were lodged last month.

"He was arrested right after the court order. These administrative things take time but the situation is getting better," he said, adding that the process of returning the land to farmers has begun.

So far, the administration has returned land to at least 51 farmers.

Mr Sheikh has been sent to 10 days in police custody and suspended from the ruling party for six years.