On Monday, March 21, the deputy chief of Trinamool panchayat Bhadu Sheikh was killed by bike-borne assailants in Bagtui village of Rampurhat in the Birbhum district. While the reason was unknown then, some villagers had pointed at the rivalry between two factions of the ruling party that ran deep in Birbhum’s Bagtui.
Bhadu was a Congress worker who had switched to TMC in 2011. A local TMC leader in the area shared that Bhadu grew to be a strongman of the ruling party and was elected as a member of the gram panchayat in 2018. He had allegedly misused his position as a Deputy Chief of the Panchayat to extort drivers of trucks used to transport sand and stone chips at Rampurhat, making him rich overnight. His newly found wealth earned him a few rivals as well.
“On Monday evening, Bhadu went to his usual tea stall with bodyguards. His phone rang, and he moved away to take the call. Suddenly, six-to-seven attackers on two-three motorcycles arrived at the spot and hurled crude bombs on either side of Bhadu and one at him. They fled as he fell to the ground. Within half an hour of the incident, Bhadu’s supporters set fire to at least four houses in the village,” said a police officer.
Several people died after being burnt alive in this violence. Rampurhat Fire Station Officer Azizul Haque stated that he had recovered three bodies on the night of the incident; the following day he got 6 and 3 more at night. “Let’s say 9. I can’t comment if there are more. The burnt bodies have been pasted,” remarked Haque. One victim died later in the hospital. The victims include women and children as well.
Khushi Khatun, a relative of one of the deceased, said, “We were all in the house. They brought petrol and set the house on fire. I survived, some of my siblings survived. But the younger siblings have died in the fire. My aunt and mother are alive but in critical condition.”
Khushi Khatun also alleged that some Bappa and Rohan executed this arson at around nine o’clock. “Who knows who killed Bhadu. These people say we killed him and killed 12 of our people,” mourned Khatun; she also appeared very disappointed with the police.
Nazima Bibi, another victim, severely injured in the fire, said, “We were ten people including two children and five-six girls…. We were inside the house. There is a shop in the middle. They (the attackers) came with a bomb and dropped it inside. I was outside but seeing the bomb, I went into the shop and pulled down the shutters, assuming that the bomb would not explode. Realizing that the bomb may not burst, they (attackers) sprinkled petrol on our house and set it ablaze. Everything in the shop has burnt to ashes. I didn’t think they would light a fire; else, we would have fled.”
One eyewitness narrated that the miscreants had cut through the iron rods, dragged a woman out, chopped her into pieces, doused her body in petrol and set it on fire.
Though an FIR has been lodged to investigate Bhadu Sheikh’s murder, addressing a press briefing over the Rampurhat violence, DGP Manoj Malviya announced that it is yet to be determined if the houses were burned in retaliation to Bhadu Sheikh’s killing. He also informed that 11 suspects were arrested in connection with the incident.
On the other hand, TMC General Secretary Kunal Ghosh has rubbished the allegations of this political rivalry leading to the violence. Taking to his official Twitter handle, Ghosh stated, “Deaths of the locals in fire is unfortunate. But this incident has no political connection. This is a local village conflict. The panchayat deputy chief who was killed was a popular person, and his death had enraged the villagers, leading to a fierce protest. The fire incident occurred at night, but officers and fire brigade took quick action.”
He further added that the government had expedited the investigation, and action has been taken against the officer-in-charge (OC) and the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO). He claims that a police investigation will reveal if it was a pre-planned murder. DGP Manoj Malviya too echoed the claims made by the TMC General Secretary and asserted, “It seems, as of now, to be a result of an old personal animosity.” Here it must be highlighted that, according to a Police Officer in Birbhum district, Sheikh’s brother, Babar Sheikh, was also shot dead in January 2021.
Further, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) with Gyanwant Singh, DIG (Operations), ADG Western Zone Sanjay Singh, CID Meeraj Khalid, and IG, Burdwan Range BL Meena as members will be formed to probe the incident. A CID team had also headed towards Rampurhat to investigate the incident, and a three-member TMC delegation comprising Rampurhat MLA Asish Banerjee and MLA of the neighbouring Labpur constituency Abhijit Sinha and Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim too has visited the site.
Raising the issue in the West Bengal Assembly, BJP MLAs staged a walkout over it on Tuesday. Terming the violence a “middle-age barbarism,” the BJP has demanded Mamata Banerjee’s resignation from the post of Home Minister of the state.
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar condemned the Rampurhat violence stating that the state is in the “grip of violence culture and lawlessness.” Also, In a series of tweets, the Leader of Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, went all guns blazing at the TMC, calling this chaos a “rapid freefall” of law and order in the state.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah has sought a report on the incident within 72 hours and decided to send a central fact-finding team to West Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury welcomed this decision.
While the entire country has come to a halt over the spine-chilling violence in the West Bengal village, the intellectuals and artists in the state have maintained a deliberate and deafening silence. The artists, actors, film personalities of West Bengal, who are always prompt to comment on any incident that takes place anywhere in Bharat, especially Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat, and wax eloquent on global issues regularly, have not spared a single word on the arson and killings 222 kilometres from the capital city where they reside.
When quizzed by reporters of TV9Bangla, the known Hindu-hating artist and a Muslim convert, Kabir Suman excused himself from making any comments. Subodh Sarkar shocked everyone by stating that he did not know about the incident. Subhaprasanna Bhattacharjee said that he was out of town and had no idea what had happened and remarked that many good things had happened in the state under Mamata Banerjee’s rule.
When contacted, TMC leader and famous actress June Malia said that she was on the shooting floor and couldn’t talk. Known television and cinema actor Kanchan Mallik also cited that he was in the middle of a shot and won’t be able to speak. Dev, a leading actor of Tollywood, refused to make any comments. While few of these actors had committed to getting back to the reporters, none did.