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regular-article-logo Sunday, 21 April 2024

People’s uprising in Sandeshkhali: Villagers free century-old playground seized by Sheikh Shahjahan

As police and local Trinamul MLA Sukumar Mahata looked on, the villagers “freed up” the ground, playing football and planting trees along its boundary wall and sending out a message that Shahjahan’s reign of terror was over

Snehamoy Chakraborty Sandeshkhali Published 23.02.24, 06:34 AM
WHITEWASHED: Sandeshkhali residents, after the ‘liberation’ of the playground, whitewashed the writing ‘Sheikh Shahjahan Fan Club’ from the gate of the field that had allegedly been grabbed by the Trinamul leader with the motive of turning it into a bheri. The white paint was applied in the presence of local MLA Sukumar Mahata of Trinamul and the police. The administration put up balloons on the gate in an apparent damage-control exercise.

WHITEWASHED: Sandeshkhali residents, after the ‘liberation’ of the playground, whitewashed the writing ‘Sheikh Shahjahan Fan Club’ from the gate of the field that had allegedly been grabbed by the Trinamul leader with the motive of turning it into a bheri. The white paint was applied in the presence of local MLA Sukumar Mahata of Trinamul and the police. The administration put up balloons on the gate in an apparent damage-control exercise. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha

Strife-torn Sandeshkhali witnessed a people’s uprising on Thursday with hundreds of villagers reclaiming a century-old playground that Trinamul strongman Sheikh Shahjahan had seized about two years ago, robbing the children of their right to play there.

As police and local Trinamul MLA Sukumar Mahata looked on, the villagers “freed up” the ground, playing football and planting trees along its boundary wall and sending out a message that Shahjahan’s reign of terror was over.

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“The erstwhile jamidars of Sandeshkhali had donated the plot and later named it Rishi Aurobindo Mission Maidan,” Nitai Mondal, a villager in his early 60s, said.

“Shahjahan’s men captured the ground in November 2022 on the pretext of holding a football tournament. After that, its main gate was locked and the ground became the property of ‘Sheikh Shahjahan Fan Club’. Our children lost their right to play there.”

He added: “But today, we have got it back.... This is the beginning of the end for Shahjahan. We have had enough.”

Trying to control the political damage, the police and Mahata played along by whitewashing over Shahjahan’s name on the boundary wall, distributing footballs among the children, and decorating the main gate with balloons.

Children play on the ground reclaimed in Sandeshkhali on Thursday.

Children play on the ground reclaimed in Sandeshkhali on Thursday. Picture by Sanat Kr Sinha

Adults and children had begun gathering outside the ground from 8am, making clear their determination to reclaim the ground in a symbolic declaration of freedom from Shahjahan’s rule. Soon, more people began arriving and the numbers grew to about 150-200.

As the villagers broke the lock on the main gate and entered the ground, the police and the ruling establishment decided to go along with the public mood.

Mahata and senior officers including the superintendent of Basirhat police district, Hossain Mehedi Rahman, rushed to the spot carrying footballs, balloons and jerseys for the children. Both Mahata and Rahman were seen playing football with the kids.

“Why didn’t they come earlier to hand over the ground to us by whitewashing over Shahjahan’s name?” asked Mita Pramanik, a villager whose home is close to the playground.

“We had been living in fear that Shahjahan (and his aides) Uttam (Sardar) and Shibu (Shib Prasad Hazra) would turn the ground into another bheri,” she added.

Pramanik said: “The police and the MLA knew that our rights over the ground had been taken away. They didn’t come to help our children play on the ground. They came today merely to take the credit after we had reclaimed the ground.”

Several villagers told this correspondent that they were thankful to the media for highlighting how people backed by the ruling party, like Shahjahan and his cronies, had grabbed villagers’ land and sexually assaulted women.

“The media glare changed the ground reality, forcing the goons to flee…. We thought this was the best opportunity to reclaim the ground and send out the message that we are free from Shahjahan’s clutches,” a middle-aged schoolteacher, who did not wish to be named, said.

Sandeshkhali has been in the news since an Enforcement Directorate team that arrived to raid Shahajahan’s home in connection with the PDS scam was attacked by a mob. While Shahjahan has been on the run since then, Hazra and Sardar have been arrested on multiple charges, including gang rape.

While there was a palpable sense of relief and liberation in the air after the ground was reclaimed, some villagers were circumspect, wondering how long the newfound freedom would last.

“They are very powerful. We have seen how Shahjahan wielded complete control over the police; he could do anything he wished,” Pramanik said.

She said Shahjahan had turned another old football ground, around 2km away, into a bheri.

An elderly villager said the Abhijan Sangha playground — dating back to the 1940s — was captured and turned into a bheri three years ago with people too afraid to utter a word in protest.

“I used to play there in my younger days. A group of villagers requested them not to ruin the beautiful football ground where teams from Calcutta used to come and participate in a tournament,” said Shibu Das, a 76-year-old villager who showed The Telegraph around the football ground-turned-bheri.

“They did not listen to us and pumped saline water into the ground. We dared not protest.”

As stories of Shahjahan’s depredations kept tumbling out after the morning uprising, Mahata tried to defend the fugitive.

“No one had captured the ground. Shahjahan organised a football tournament, named after himself, that is why the outer wall was painted with his name,” the MLA said.

The villagers dismissed his version of events.

A villager told this newspaper: “If Shahjahan had not captured the ground, why did the police and the MLA take the pains to whitewash the wall and remove his name?”

When the same question was posed to Mahata, he said: “Shahjahan’s name should have been removed after the tournament. It was giving some politically motivated villagers an excuse to accuse him of land-grab, so we took the step.”

A Trinamul leader in Calcutta, however, said that removing Shahjahan’s name from the wall was part of a process to erase his memory from the minds of the local people and try to regain the ground the party had lost because of people like him.

“The party wants to control the damage caused by the accused. Party leaders have been asked to meet each of the aggrieved villagers and note down the details of their allegations,” the leader said.

“With the BJP looking to capitalise on Sandeshkhali in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, our top leadership is seeking detailed reports from the area to address the grievances.”

That implementing this plan, drawn up by party strategists sitting in Calcutta, will be a challenge became apparent on Thursday: Mahata and a group of local Trinamul leaders tasted the people’s anger as they began visiting doorsteps.

“Why have you come today? Where were you when our land was grabbed? Why did your leaders torture us?” asked a woman, covering her face with a towel.

Mahata and other Trinamul leaders tried to pacify the villagers, requesting them to “keep faith” with the party and Mamata Banerjee.

“We want Didi to come and listen to us,” said Kamal Dey Kayal, a woman in her early 50s.

A Trinamul source said that senior leaders like ministers Partha Bhowmik and Sujit Bose would visit Sandeshkhali and meet the villagers at their doorsteps, and that the chief minister might pay a visit thereafter.

“The party doesn’t want the BJP to gain politically because of the misdeeds of a handful of people. We will try our best to address the popular concerns,” the source said.

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