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Is the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan by Bengal Police hogwash to avoid central agencies getting custody? Here is what HC had said only recently

Only a day ago, the High Court had allowed ED and CBI to arrest the TMC leader. Given how TMC has tried to shield him, it is entirely possible that this is a token arrest to ensure that central agencies don't get custody of the TMC leader, known to be close to Mamata Banerjee.

Sheikh Shahjahan, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader accused of sexual violence and land grabbing by multiple women in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali, was arrested on Thursday (29th February) morning by the Bengal Police after 55 days of the run from police. Pertinently he has been arrested for orchestrating an attack on ED and not for the sexual assault and rape complaints filed by the women of Sandeshkhali.

The 53-year-old TMC goon was apprehended in the Minakhan area of North 24 Parganas and will appear in court today, according to senior police officer Aminul Islam Khan. “We arrested Sheikh Shajahan yesterday night from the Minakhan PS area. We will ask for Police remand, let’s see how it goes,” added ADG (South Bengal) Supratim Sarkar.

“Sheikh Shahjahan, one of the principal accused in a case which happened on January 5, 2024, where ED officers were assaulted during the course of a raid they were conducting,” South Bengal ADG Supratim Sarkar said during a press conference following the arrest.

On the issue of sexual assault complaints filed in Sandeshkhali, Sarkar said that the cases filed by the women pertain to incidents that are said to have happened 2-3 years back. “Investigating the cases, and collecting shreds of evidence would take a reasonable amount of time. The investigations are underway,” he added.

What the High Court said about Sheikh Shahjahan, giving ED and CBI the right to arrest him

The arrest came three days after the Calcutta High Court chastised the state police for delaying action against the Trinamool leader, stating that “he should be arrested”. This also comes a day after the Calcutta High Court ruled that central agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or the Enforcement Directorate (ED) would be free to arrest Sheikh, the key accused in cases of land grab and sexual harassment that surfaced following violent protests in Sandeshkhali island of North 24 Parganas district.

A division bench of Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharya gave the clarification after being informed by ASG SV Raju that the CBI suspected the State police of colluding with Shahjahan, who had been missing for more than 50 days. 

“The ASG apprehends that if the State police make an arrest, there is a likelihood of the case being diluted as the CBI and ED have serious reservations against the State police and there is an allegation of collusion with the absconding accused. The AG has disputed such contention. The concerned person has not been apprehended for a substantial period. As of date, what has been stayed is only the constitution of an SIT Therefore it is well open to the CBI or ED also to arrest the absconding accused. Equally so, there are other cases registered against the same accused, where he has been shown as absconding. Therefore, a person elected to public office cannot defy the law. It is open to any agency to arrest the concerned person,” the bench stated on 28th February.

Notably, amid the ongoing controversy, West Bengal BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari had said that Shahjahan would be in ‘safe custody’ of the state police under Mamata Banerjee’s government. He stated that Shahjahan had managed to lock a deal with the state police who would be providing five-star facilities to him during his custody.

“The Scoundrel of Sandeshkhali – Seikh Shahjahan has been in the safe custody of Mamata Police since 12 am last night. He was taken away from the Bermajur – II Gram Panchayat area, after he managed to negotiate a deal with the Mamata Police, through influential mediators, that he would be taken care of properly while in Police and Judicial Custody,” the leader said in a post on X.

“He will be extended 5 Star facilities during his time behind bars and will have access to a mobile phone, through which he will be able to lead the Tolamool Party virtually. Even a bed in the Woodburn Ward will be kept ready and vacant for him if he chooses to spend some time there,” Adhikari added.

How Mamata Banerjee tried to shield Sheikh Shahjahan and downplay Sandeshkhali

It is pertinent to note that amid the unrest in Sandeshkhali village in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee on Sunday (18th February) attempted to downplay the harassment and sexual exploitation of women at the hands of Trinamool Congress goons.

During a public meeting at Birbhum, she dubbed the unrest in Sandeshkhali as a ‘minor incident’ and blamed the BJP and the media for amplifying the issue in the public discourse. “An incident has happened or rather made to happen. First, they sent the ED (Enforcement Directorate), and then its friend BJP entered the scene. After that, some media houses capitalised on the incident. Made a hue and cry out of a minor incident,” she was quoted as saying.

After trivialising the seriousness of the matter, she ‘promised’ to send officers to Sandeshkhali to listen to the grievances of the villagers. This is even though the victims have accused the police of being mute spectators to the atrocities committed against women.

She recently also targeted BJP leader Adhikari after the latter compared the incident to Nandigram where people had fought against land acquisition. “The situation in Sandeshkhali is like Nandigram. In Nandigram, people fought against land acquisition and here people are fighting against land grabs. Here, protests began after women started their movement against sexual harassment but land grabbing is the second most common allegation in Sandeshkhali.” Adhikari had said.

To this, Banerjee had blatantly said that each place had its own characteristics and that no comparison was needed to be done. “I do not support any wrongdoing and I won’t do that ever in my life. Even if some wrong was unknowingly committed somewhere, I do not support that as well,” she had said.

Why the Bengal police may have arrested Sheikh Shahjahan just to shield him from central agencies

After the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan, when he was produced in court, the body language of the TMC leader clearly indicated that he had no fear of arrest or law enforcement agencies. This is also proved by the fact that the ED itself had told the High Court that Shahjahan, while on the run, was sending taunting voice messages to the ED – something that Osama Bin Laden would do.

Given what the High Court had said, it is entirely possible that the recent action by the state police could be a move to safeguard the interest of the accused Sheikh who is also a TMC leader.

The High Court had only recently said that the central agencies – CBI and ED – were free to arrest Sheikh Shahjahan. Give that the arrest came shortly after the order by the HC, it is being speculated that the Bengal police has now made a token arrest of the TMC leader so that the central agencies don’t get his custidy. Though Banerjee has said that she doesn’t support any wrongdoing, she has a history of downplaying the crimes that have been reported against women.

Notably, the BJP after the arrest of Sheikh slammed the state for delayed action and said that the state was not safe under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. “After defending Shahjahan Sheikh on the floor of West Bengal Assembly, a red-faced Mamata Banerjee, left with no option, finally allowed WB Police to arrest the TMC leader, accused of sexual violence, murder, land grab and assault on government officials in Sandeshkhali,” he said.

“Shahjahan’s arrest, more than 50 days after he went in hiding, a day before the PM arrives in Bengal and post Calcutta High Court’s tough stricture, raises several questions on Mamata Banerjee’s predatory politics,” he added.

A huge number of women in Sandeshkhali accused Shajahan Sheikh and his allies of land grabs and forced sexual assaults. For more than a month, protesters have been gathering beside the river, demanding the arrest of Sheikh and his collaborators. It remains important to see now what further action the state police would take against Sheikh to ensure justice for the protesting women.

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