Mamata Banerjee today visited a village in Bengal's Birbhum where eight people - all women and children - were beaten and burnt alive by a mob on Tuesday, and said the suspects would be hunted down if they did not surrender. Battling a furious political backlash over the savage killings and accused by the opposition BJP of condoning political violence, the Chief Minister also alleged that "something big" was behind the incident.
"I never believed something so barbaric can happen in modern Bengal. Mothers and children were killed. Your family members died but it is my heart that was crushed...," Mamata Banerjee said, surrounded by the family members and relatives of those killed, besides villagers.
Alleging a bigger conspiracy, she called for "stringent action" and said the police would investigate all angles.
"Police will ensure strictest punishment is handed out to culprits responsible for the Rampurhat carnage. The case filed before the court should be watertight," Ms Banerjee said.
She summoned a top police officer right there and instructed him to punish policemen found negligent.
"I don't want any excuses that people have run away. I want people responsible to be arrested and policemen to be punished for lapses. Witnesses must be given protection by police from possible attacks. Those whose homes have been burnt must be given Rs 1 lakh to repair the houses," she said. She later revised the amount to Rs 2 lakh as the families complained it was not enough.
Six women and two children were locked in their homes and burnt alive by a mob on Tuesday at village Bogtui near Rampurhat town, in what was believed to be retaliation after a local Trinamool Congress leader, Bhadu Sheikh, was killed in a crude bomb attack. Charred bodies were found a day later, mostly belonging to one family.
Some of the houses set on fire are still burning.
Witnesses told "Didi" they saw their families attacked. They named local Trinamool leader Anarul Sheikh as one of the attackers.
"Anarul is a bad person. He beat up my sons earlier too. Bhadu's men also attacked my sons," said Hasina Bibi, the relative of a victim.
"After Bhadu died, his three brothers and his sons got together and set the fires. They killed our mothers by stabbing them. Then they set it on fire," said Mofiza Bibi, whose family members were killed.
Another man, Sheikhlal Sheikh, said: "These people were in business together. They all took their share. The kingpin was Anarul. Bhadu and Anarul worked together and had the police on their side."
Anarul would be arrested, the Chief Minister assured the villagers. He was arrested shortly after the statement.
Many had fled the village after the incident, allegedly fearing reprisals or arrest. Two FIRs were filed - one over the Trinamool leader's murder, and the other over the killing of villagers.
Though the two incidents have seeded a political row, many villagers claim a local rivalry provoked the violence.
Twenty people have been arrested.
Mamata Banerjee has vowed strict action "regardless of political colours", but the BJP has demanded a central investigation, the sacking of the Chief Minister and President's Rule.
Yesterday, the Calcutta High Court stepped in and ordered the state government to protect witnesses and set up CCTV cameras at the site. The court also asked the state government to file a report.
According to news agency PTI, Bhadu Sheikh's sons are among the suspects picked up by the police.
Since Tuesday, several political leaders, mainly from the BJP, have visited the village along with TV crew.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at an event last evening, described the killings as "heinous" and said those responsible for them should not be forgiven.
PM Modi said his government was willing to help the state in any way to bring the accused to justice.
"I hope that the state government will definitely ensure that those who have committed such heinous crimes are punished," the PM said.
"I would also urge the people of Bengal to never forgive the perpetrators of such incidents, those who encourage such criminals. The centre would extend all sorts of help to the state government to ensure the culprits are booked," he added.