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Sandeshkhali: How 'Independent' is the Independent Fact-Finding Team Led By a Retired Judge?

There is a tussle over the storm in Sandeshkhali between all major political parties in the state, with TMC now forced to suspend Shekh Shahjahan for six years
Sandeshkhali. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar.

Kolkata: On March 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that it was the pressure put by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders that led to Bengal Police – under the control of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government – to arrest the accused in the Sandeshkhali case, Sheikh Shahjahan. 

Modi’s claim is not new as attempts to politicise claims of the ruling party’s excesses at Sandeshkhali as an opposition-versus-Trinamool Congress strife have been made ever since locals staged demonstrations against Shahjahan.

The Wire has found that a six-member team that has been widely described in the mainstream media as an “independent fact-finding committee” aiming to document incidents of human rights violations in the area has turned out to be part of a BJP-backed project.

On February 25, the team led by retired Patna high court Chief Justice L. Narasimhan Reddy was stopped by the state police on their way to Sandeshkhali, where the local residents are up in arms against what they have alleged is reign of terror unleashed by Sheikh Shajahan, a leader of the state’s ruling party, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), and his associates.  

On February 28, the Calcutta high court allowed them to visit Sandeshkhali. They also met Governor CV Ananda Bose in Kolkata. 

Retired Justice Reddy has long been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological-organisational parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He has attended many Sangh Parivar events and has been seen together with senior RSS leaders like Dattatreya Hosabale and Mohan Bhagwat. Other members of the team, too, have connections with the RSS or the BJP.  

Notably, five of the six members of this team visited West Bengal twice in 2023 – once in January and then in April – on fact-finding missions on alleged violation of human rights of the TMC’s political opponents, precisely the BJP. Those visits, too, were led by retired Justice Reddy. 

After the April 2023 visit to inquire into the incidents of violence over Ram Navami processions, the team alleged in its report that “riots which erupted on the auspicious occasion of Rain Navami on March 30 and continued in its aftermath, were pre-planned, orchestrated, and instigated. The trigger was the grossly inflammatory speech of the West Bengal Chief Minister.” 

Sandeshkhali hit the headlines first in January and then in February. On January 5, an Enforcement Directorate (ED) came under attack from Shahjahan’s supporters while attempting to raid the TMC leader’s residence in connection with a PDS scam the agency is probing. Shahjahan went out of the cops’ radar thereafter. 

In the first week of February, local women staged massive demonstrations demanding the arrest of Shahjahan and his associates. Apart from rampant allegations of land grab and corruption, some local women have also alleged sexual harassment by local TMC leaders. 

Seeing a rebellion against the TMC, opposition parties including the BJP have jumped on the issue to exploit it politically. The TMC too has been keen to represent the local rebellion as an opposition-engineered one.

While the state administration has allowed the ministers and leaders of the ruling party, CM Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), to visit Sandeshkhali, the administration has tried to prevent the entry of BJP, CPI(M) and Indian Secular Front (ISF) leaders. However, a team of left-leaning civil society members, including actors Badshah Maitra, Sourabh Palodhi and Joyraj Bhattacharjee, visited Sandeshkhali earlier this week. 

The Reddy-led six-member “independent” team seeking to visit Sandeshkhali comprises former Haryana cadre IPS Raj Pal Singh, lawyers Charu Wali Khanna, Om Prakash Vyas and Bhavna Bajaj and journalist Sanjeev Kumar Nayak. 

After the team was stopped, the members sat on the street, while BJP leaders started taking potshots at the state police. 

“Blocking access to Fact-Finding Committee members in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal is a blatant attack on transparency and accountability. Hindering investigations only raise suspicions. Authorities must ensure unfettered access to information,” alleged BJP Lok Sabha MP Locket Chatterjee.

Saffron Connections 

In 2017, retired justice Reddy served as the chairman of the ‘reception committee’ of the silver jubilee celebrations of Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad (ABAP), the lawyer wing of the RSS. In February 2018, he was the chief guest at the RSS trade union,  Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS)’s second triennial conference for Telangana held at Siddipet.

In 2019, he was on the dias of the inauguration ceremony of the 65th national conference of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. In 2022, he assumed the charge as the honorary president of RSS-backed Nizam Vimukta Swatantra Amrutotsavulu to celebrate Hyderabad’s ‘liberation’ from Nizam’s rule. 

Journalist Sanjeev Kumar Nayak, who was with The Sunday Guardian, has been described as “an old ABVP hand” in a book compiling some writings of KR Malkani, who served as editor of both the RSS english mouthpiece, Organiser, and the RSS-backed Hindi journal, Manthan. Nayak accomplished the task of “editing, correction of grammatical and spelling errors as well as content development” for the book. 

Advocate Bhavna Bajaj is Delhi BJP’s state executive member. OP Vyas, advocate and former Registrar of the NHRC, too, has participated in ABAP’s events. Khanna works in close coordination with the Lawyers for Justice (LFJ), a BJP-backed, Delhi-based initiative aimed at highlighting incidents of human rights violations in West Bengal. 

LFJ was launched in April 2022. Its founder-trustees include Supreme Court lawyers Kabir Shankar Bose, who contested the 2021 assembly election on a BJP ticket from Serampore in Hooghly district – and lost – and KK Tyagi, the convenor of Delhi BJP’s legal cell. 

Their first event happened on April 29, 2022, when it organised a “lawyers’ parliament for deliberation over the topic of Uniform Civil Code”. The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, was the event’s media partner. 

The same day, they carried out a candle light rally in Delhi to protest political violence in West Bengal. In May, LFJ members met President Ram Nath Kovind, and submitted a memorandum requesting him “to intervene and save the people of West Bengal.” 

The LFJ first put together the fact-finding team in December 2022, when it was decided that they would visit in January 2023 for fact-finding on the school recruitment scam. 

Then, too, an IANS report described the team as an “independent pressure group,” while an ANI report said that it will be for the first time that “an Independent, high-level civil society committee” will be visiting Bengal “with the sole objective to meet and interact with the victims of different offenses for their protection and raise the voice of the oppressed in entire India.”

A report after their visit on January 4 and 5 said the “LFJ was formed to visit West Bengal, meet victims of human rights violations by ruling Trinamool Congress Govt and its functionaries to ascertain facts and raise their voice.”

Following the team’s April 2023 visit, the LFJ organised a seminar in May on “breakdown of law and order in West Bengal” in which the speakers were former Delhi high court judge, SN Dhingra, Organiser editor Praful Kelkar, BJP leader Anirban Ganguly and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) chief Alok Kumar.  

Earlier this month, just before the team’s fact-finding visit to West Bengal, an LFJ delegation visited the NHRC on February 14 and met NHRC member Dnyaneshwar Manohar Mulay. They alleged that the state government had not been functioning as per Constitutional provisions and that it was “causing a complete breakdown of Constitutional machinery.” Bhavna Bajaj was part of that delegation as well. 

TMC state unit spokesperson Kunal Ghosh described the fact-finding team members as “BJP’s party cadres.” 

“Where was this so-called fact-finding team in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam, and Manipur?” he asked, adding that the sole intention of their visit is “to malign the TMC government.”

Meanwhile, teams from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), National Commission for Women (NCW), and National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) have already visited Sandeshkhali, while the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken suo motu cognisance. 

The NCST acting chairperson Ananta Nayak is a former BJP MP and member of the BJP’s national executive who has worked closely with the RSS tribal wing, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), in Odisha. The NCSC’s acting chairman, Arun Haldar, is a BJP leader from West Bengal. The other members of the NCSC visiting team were Subhash Pardhi, former state president of BJP SC Morcha in Maharashtra, and Anju Bala, former BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh. 

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