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Sandeshkhali: Crackdown on Journalists and Politicians' Name-Calling Amid Rape Allegations Rock Bengal

While a reporter from Republic Bangla, who was arrested earlier this week, was released on bail, an FIR was lodged against another journalist from ABP Ananda News for content on his show that authorities claim could incite violence.
A woman at Sandeshkhali. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar.

Kolkata: The arrest of a television reporter and the filing of a first information report (FIR) against a senior editor in West Bengal have ignited concerns about press freedom in the state, amidst ongoing investigations into alleged sexual assaults in the Sandeshkhali village.

Santu Pan, a reporter for Republic Bangla, was arrested on February 19 for allegedly trespassing and outraging the modesty of a woman during live coverage of the incident. He was released on bail on Thursday, February 22.

Meanwhile, an FIR was lodged against Suman De, anchor and vice president of ABP Ananda News, for content on his show that authorities claim could incite violence. De has been issued a notice under Section 41A and asked to appear before the Sandeshkhali police station.

While granting bail to Pan, the single-judge bench of Justice Kaushik Chanda came down heavily on the West Bengal police and termed the FIR as “unreasonable” and “motivated”.

“The entire sequence of events has turned into a joke. Police must do what they are supposed to,” Justice Chanda said.

In 2021, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee opposed Justice Chanda’s appointment to the Calcutta high court, citing his links with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Subsequently, Chanda recused himself from hearing the Nandigram election petition filed by Banerjee, challenging Suvendu Adhikari’s win. Additionally, he fined Banerjee Rs 5 lakh for allegedly portraying the judiciary in a negative light.

Since February 6, women in Sandeshkhali have been protesting against alleged sexual harassment and sexual assault involving local TMC leaders.

The party has vehemently denied the accusations, dismissing them as “fabricated” and “politically motivated”. Several party spokespersons have questioned the credibility of the protesting women, demanding video evidence to substantiate their claims.

TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh has openly asked the women, who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault in Sandeshkhali, to raise their hands in a public talk show, confirming whether they were ‘raped’.

Ghosh, once a trusted aide of Banerjee during the Singur Nandigram protest, fell out of favour and spent three years in jail for his alleged role in the chit fund scam. He is known to be a close confidante of Abhishek Banerjee. And as per the Telegraph, he has reportedly influenced key bureaucratic postings, including the recent appointment of home secretary Nandini Chakraborty.

“BJP is misusing my words. I repeat, the word ‘shamelessly’ was never used towards any woman. I said it about her politics. It is not my intention to disrespect any woman,” said Ghosh.

Ghosh also taunted CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat’s visit to Sandeshkhali, labeling it as a ‘fashion parade’, and referred to BJP MLA Agnimitra Pal as ‘shameless’. His comments drew sharp criticism from opposition leaders and women activists.

“Trinamool Congress is mocking women. But why are TMC leaders not responding to the allegations of torture by taking them to the party office?” asked Karat.

Pal, alongside opposition leader Adhikari, has been accused of calling a turban-clad IPS police officer as “Khalistani”, leading to criticism from Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge, and Aam Aadmi Party leader and Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann.

Sikh organisations, including the Akal Takht and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, have condemned the incident. The Sikh community has also organized demonstrations across the state and presented a deputation to the governor seeking action against the BJP leaders.

Mercy John, a 2012-batch IPS officer posted with the state reserve police in Sealdah, also came out in support of her colleague, recounting the religious slurs she faced while on duty.

TMC also launched a digital protest on Wednesday with the theme “I Am A Sikh, I Wear Turban, & I Am Not Khalistani.” The party also demanded an explanation from the prime minister.

The BJP has yet to issue an official statement regarding the accusations. However, some party members have defended Pal and Adhikari, claiming that their comments were misconstrued or taken out of context.

On Thursday, BJP’s state president and MP Sukanta Majumdar visited Sandeshkhali.

He was stopped by the police on February 14, after which he was admitted to a hospital, alleging police mishandling

Majumdar announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would address a rally in Barasat on March 6, kicking off the BJP’s election campaign in the state. Modi is expected to meet women protesters of Sandeshkhali on the sidelines of the rally.

TMC has already announced a major rally in Sandeshkhali on March 5, which top leaders are expected to attend.

The West Bengal police has so far registered two cases of gang-rape against the accused TMC leaders. The state DGP Rajeev Kumar, who was initially slated to address a press conference on Thursday morning, cancelled the meeting and returned to Kolkata. Kumar visited Sandeshkhali on Wednesday to assess the situation in the area.

In a media briefing, the DGP assured that stringent action would be taken against individuals found guilty of violating the law. He actively addressed the concerns raised by the local community and appealed for cooperation with the police.

However, despite these assurances, a sense of hesitancy persists among local women with their reservations centering around Sabir Ali Mollah, the village police officer and a close relative of Shah Jahan. Locals claim that Sabir holds significant influence at the Rajbari police camp under the Nyajat police station in Sandeshkhali. Additionally, two of Sabir’s brothers are employed as civic police, serving as contractual staff assisting the police forces. Opposition parties frequently allege that civic volunteers primarily function as uniformed cadres of the TMC.

“Two women have lodged complaints with the police, and there may be more women willing to step forward, if guaranteed protection and confidentiality. It’s crucial to note that the police officer and his associates are still part of their community. Their removal is imperative for an unbiased trial, ensuring our lives remain secure. Many may come forward with their grievances, but approaching the government directly with such matters is a challenge. There’s a need for respect and understanding throughout this process,” said a woman from Radha Nagar Sing Para in Sandeshkhali.

Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya.

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