How Sheikh Shahjahan Turned Bengal's Sandeshkhali Island Into His Fiefdom

On the face of it, there are allegations and counter-allegations between political parties. Scratch the surface and what emerges is a baffling tale of Shahjahan's meteoric rise to power

Sheikh Shahjahan is on the run since a mob attacked a team of ED officials


Till a few months ago, Sandeshkhali island in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district was just a dot on the map. But over the past few months, this nondescript island has made national headlines and emerged as a major flashpoint between the Opposition and the ruling Trinamool Congress, thanks to the local strongman Sheikh Shahjahan.

On the face of it, there are allegations and counter-allegations between rival political parties ahead of the general election. But scratch the surface and what emerges is a baffling tale of Shahjahan's meteoric rise to power and how he managed to turn this island into his fiefdom.

The Beginning

Shahjahan's journey to become Sandeshkhali's strongman began well before the Trinamool Congress came to power. Not much is known about his educational background. In his nomination papers for the panchayat polls, the column of educational qualifications was vacant. Local media reports say that in the early 2000s, Shahjahan would be seen on the sidestep of cars plying between Sandeshkhali and neighbouring Sarberia, calling out to passengers and collecting fare from them. His maternal uncle, Moslem Sheikh, was a local CPM leader and the panchayat chief. Sheikh gave Shahjahan his first breakthrough, and the ambitious nephew started looking after the local fish trade. He was no leader, yet, and largely worked in the shadow of his uncle, helping him out during elections and keeping in touch with local party leaders.

His assets, however, started growing and that did not go unnoticed. It is around this time that Shahjahan started carving out his identity. He helped out local residents during crisis. Whether it is arranging funds for a wedding or helping out parents struggling to pay for their children's education, Shahjahan was the go-to man.

Around 2010, he sensed the wind of change blowing against the ruling CPM, even before his uncle did. Local media reports said Shahjahan gradually started distancing himself from CPM as the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress gained ground ahead of the 2011 polls. Shahjahan's calculation proved right when the 34-year rule of the Left ended and the Trinamool came to power.

Meanwhile, Trinamool leader Jyotipriya Mallick, now in jail in a corruption case, was watching the ambitious nephew. Mallick, local reports said, planned to deal a fatal blow to the CPM by using Shahjahan to counter his uncle Moslem Sheikh's influence. In 2013, Sheikh Shahjahan joined the Trinamool Congress. The tide had turned and the nephew had trumped his uncle. So much so that Moslem Sheikh was forced to join Trinamool a few years back.

A Mountain Of Wealth

Three palatial homes, coloured white, blue and yellow, tower over Akunjipara More near Sandeshkali. The blue and white homes are occupied by Shahjahan's relatives. The 50-year-old strongman lived in the yellow before he fled ahead of the Enforcement Directorate's raid. Documents submitted for panchayat polls stated Shahjahan owns 17 cars, 43 bighas of land -- about 23 acres -- and jewellery worth over Rs 2 crore. His bank balance was nearly Rs 2 crore. The strongman mentioned his occupation as 'business' and his annual income was shown as nearly Rs 20 lakh.

Local residents, however, claim that his actual property is much more. But where was the money coming from? Local leaders say he owned two brick kilns and was regularly seen there. That was not all. Shahjahan's aides collected a cut from every fish trader in the area. Firearms tucked into their belts, his men would go from one fish grower to another, collecting the strongman's "fee" every month, according to local reports. Such was his terror in the area that no one dared to oppose.

Allegations of Land Grab

Over the past decade, agricultural production in Sandeshkhali saw a swift decline and fish cultivation an exponential growth. Behind this was Sheikh Shahjahan. Local residents recount the strongman's oft-repeated expression: nona jole sona fole (Gold grows in saline water). His ways to "grow gold", however, have drawn serious allegations of land grab. Several farmers have narrated to NDTV how Shahjahan took control of land. His men would break embankments to channel saline water into agricultural land. "They have inundated our land with saline water so that we cannot grow crops here. (Shahjahan's aides) Uttam Sardar and Shibu Hazra did this. Now they are rearing lobsters," said a local farmer.

Another farmer alleged that they are being forced to rear fish. "Why will we go into fish farming when we have this land? We used to grow rice and live off it. We grew crops and fed ourselves. Fish and rice sufficed. Now, everything has stopped. There is no vegetable and there is no crop. Our cows don't have anything to eat as there is no grass. What will we do? We are dying."

Protest, the local farmers said, would attract a hefty penalty. "We are protesting now because we cannot take it anymore. They pick us up and beat us. This is the situation. We cannot sleep at night," said a farmer who did not want to be identified.

The objective was simple -- turn land into fish farms and reap the profits. Every piece of land, including a football field named after him, was on Shahjahan's radar as he went on building his fiefdom, local residents say.

The Extortion Network

Local residents allege that they would get only a small portion of the money that came into their accounts under welfare schemes of the Centre and the state government. This also applied to payments for work under MGNREGA, the rural job guarantee scheme.

"We would get maybe Rs 500. They did not give us the rest," a local resident said, targeting Shahjahan's aides.

"Shahjahan's men would pick us up from our home. We would be made to withdraw the money and give it to them. They would hand us Rs 500. 'Take this, we won't give you the rest', they said," said another. A protest would invite a thrashing, they alleged.

Another group of men said payment for building roads or digging ponds would also be snatched by Shahjahan and his men. "This road has been built, but we have not been paid. When we dug a pond, we did not get money for it. Not a single rupee. If we said anything, they would pick us up and beat us."

Where Is Sheikh Shahjahan?

The Sandeshkhali strongman has been missing since a team of Enforcement Directorate officials came under a mob attack when they went to raid his home in Sandeshkhali in January. The recent allegations of harassment by women have raised a political storm and prompted the state police to crack down. Shahjahan's aides Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar have been arrested, but he is still on the run. State police chief Rajeev Kumar said a 10-member committee is investigating the Sandeshkhali events.

"A total of 17 arrests have been made," he told reporters Saturday.

The top cop said state police is not trying to hide anything and appealed to villagers to come forward with their complaints. The police are also organising camps in the area to take complaints of land grab and extortion.

One woman has registered a complaint of rape. Basirhat police chief HM Rehman said, "The complaints received by us from the police team in Sandeshkhali as well as the police station did not mention any cases of rape. However, in court, one woman has lodged a complaint of rape. The police will take action."

The officer, however, said they have not received any complaint specifically naming Shahjahan Sheikh. The main Opposition BJP has accused the Trinamool Congress government of shielding the strongman and called for strict action.