‘We’re soft targets’: In Sandeshkhali, journalists attacked by mob, restricted by state

With the island on the boil since January 5, journalists claim the TMC govt is trying to avoid further embarrassment.

WrittenBy:Niladry Sarkar
Mamata Banerjee with a map of West Bengal showing Sandeshkhali.

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Sandeshkhali, an island located on the Indian side of the Sundarbans in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, has been in a state of unrest since January 5 when a mob of over 1,000 people, including women, attacked a team from the Enforcement Directorate. 

The ED team was there to conduct a raid on the house of Shahjahan Sheikh, a local strongman leader from the Trinamool Congress, as part of its investigation into an alleged ration scam. The attackers injured three ED officials and set their vehicles on fire. They allegedly looted their personal belongings such as laptops, mobiles and wallets.

The mob then turned on media representatives. Several journalists, who were there to report on the ED’s raid, were assaulted and driven away by the mob, which allegedly attempted to seize their cameras and mobile phones. 

“Ours was the first media vehicle that came under attack in Sandeshkhali,” Ayan Ghoshal, a senior reporter from Bangla news channel Zee 24 Ghanta, told Newslaundry. “The mob didn’t want us to cover the raid and we didn’t get any help from the local police. They first attacked our vehicles with stones, bricks and sticks. They also tried to snatch mobiles and cameras from some journalists. Many were beaten and kicked mercilessly. We were on our own and had to run for our lives.”

A reporter from Bangla news channel ABP Ananda said he was “beaten” by the mob. 

“We rescued some ED officials in our car which had also come under attack by then. After rescuing them, I was returning to Sandeshkhali because I had been separated from my cameraperson. En route, I was stopped and beaten on the suspicion of being an ED officer,” he said in this video.

The reporter added, ”I was forced to unlock my mobile and on seeing pictures of ED raids, I was further assaulted. My driver was also beaten and our car was further damaged.”

A journalist from The Telegraph wrote that unknown people “pinned me down and started kicking me” because they wanted his camera.

“I felt an excruciating pain in my hands and then all over my body as punches and kicks were landing on me. I did not realise when my grip loosened and my camera was gone,” he wrote. 

Sequence of events 

After relative peace for a few days, the situation escalated in Sandeshkhali when some local women, during their conversation with a reporter from Republic Bangla, accused local TMC cadres who work under Shahjahan of sexual exploitation. 

Since then, many such allegations have surfaced across media platforms against the personnel of Shahjahan. Women accused the TMC leader and his aides of “beating” their husbands and “forcefully” acquiring their land and not paying adequate compensation.  

Among those named were TMC leaders Shiboprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar, known locally as Shahjahan’s closest aides. Hazra was arrested on February 17 and Sardar on February 10. Shahjahan has been absconding since January 5. 

Meanwhile, women have come out in large numbers to lead the protests against the alleged atrocities of local TMC workers. Several properties owned by TMC leaders were set on fire in Sandeshkhali within a month of the January 5 attack on the ED officials. Representatives from the National Commission for Women also visited the region on February 12. 

However, the West Bengal police denied allegations of sexual misconduct and called them “wilful misinformation”. In a post on X on February 14, the police said, “It is reiterated that no allegations about rape of women have so far been received during the enquiries since conducted by the State Women’s Commission, an all-women 10-member fact-finding team led by DIG CID, and also the district police.”

The post continued: “The representatives of the National Women’s Commission, following a recent visit to Sandeshkhali, have also corroborated this, saying that they did not receive any complaints of rape of local women during their enquiry.”

But a day later, the NCW said there was a “disturbing pattern of violence and intimidation against women”. The commission further claimed that evidence was being erased and intimidation tactics were being employed against women in Sandeshkhali.

On February 17, the police said they had added penal sections 376D (gangrape) and 307 (attempt to murder) in their cases against Hazra and Sardar. NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma, who visited Sandeshkhali on February 19, also said she had received two complaints of rape. 

The region remained on the edge even on Tuesday as West Bengal Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari and CPIM leader Brinda Karat were stopped from visiting Sandeshkhali. However, after the Calcutta High Court’s intervention, both were allowed to go in.

Attacking the fourth pillar

Amidst this escalating tension, what stood out was the state police’s firm warning in their February 14 post on X about initiating “strict legal action” against the media for “spreading unfounded misinformation”. 

On Monday, Republic Bangla journalist Santu Pan was arrested in an unprecedented manner during a live telecast. He was accused of trespassing and outraging the modesty of a woman. 

A reporter with a Bangla news channel, who was attacked on January 5, told Newslaundry: “I have been a journalist for long enough now and I can say a  journalist can never misbehave so brazenly with a woman. And how can a reporter, who was looking to highlight the plight of a woman, molest her? It doesn’t make sense.” 

Other journalists who have been covering Sandeshkhali since January 5 saw Pan’s arrest as an attack on the media. 

Ayan Ghoshal of Zee 24 Ghanta said: “The police did not produce any warrant or arrest memo. They did not also produce the magistrate’s signature. How could they arrest someone just like that? We are facing restrictions at every turn. The police are trying their best to stop journalists from doing their work. Despite having a press card accredited by the West Bengal government, the police are attempting to stop me from going to the interior of Sandeshkhali and speak to locals.”

Ghoshal believes the TMC government is restricting  the media to save itself from losing face.

“The West Bengal government suffered a huge embarrassment when ED officials and media were attacked on January 5. They don’t want a repeat of that. The situation on the ground is not yet under their control and I think the police feel they won’t be able to give journalists adequate security in Sandeshkhali,” he said. 

The Bangla TV reporter quoted above said the same: “There is tension on the ground. Forget journalists, despite such a high level of security in Sandeshkhali, the police themselves don’t feel secure enough to visit neighbouring villages. Party workers and cadres of Shahjahan are still active there.”

They added: “Shahjahan and his men could run their atrocities due to the absence of local police administration in the region. Now when they feel their activities are being restricted, there are high chances they might resort to violence. Women and local people who have protested and raised complaints are living under this constant fear.”

A senior correspondent with a national daily, who is based in Kolkata and has covered Sandeshkhali, told Newslaundry that Delhi news channels’ high-pitch coverage of developments of Sandeshkhali further aggravated this sense of embarrassment. 

“See, the way national TV channels have portrayed Sandeshkhali is not how such serious issues should be covered. I think by restricting the media’s movement in Sandeshkhali, the West Bengal government is trying to curb this kind of coverage,” he said on condition of anonymity. “But this is also wrong. What was achieved by the arrest of the Republic journalist? It will further embarrass the state government.”

All three journalists agreed that these developments are not isolated incidents, pointing at poor security and protection for journalists in the state.

“I have come under attack at least six-seven times. Journalists have become soft targets,” said Ghoshal. “I am not saying this is true for the entire state. But there are several pockets where a mob’s first intention is to always attack the media. They would try to vandalise our vehicles and take away our cameras and other devices. They do this very tactically to stop journalists from doing their work.”

The national daily correspondent said he wasn’t subjected to serious restrictions in Sandeshkhali, but reiterated that there’s an increase in journalists being assaulted by mobs in West Bengal. 

“Attacks on journalists during pre-poll campaigns of political parties and during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti festivities are growing in number,” the national daily correspondent said.

Ghoshal said the attacks on journalists in the state were not tied to their organisations or politics. “Here, the attackers don’t identify journalists by their work or by their employers. They attack us because we are media persons and they don’t want us to show the world their activities.”

He added, “First the police fail to provide security. Then, when an embarrassing incident of an attack on the media happens, the police, instead of protecting us, restricts us because they still cannot provide us with enough security.”

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