A fortnight ago, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee told reporters that Shah Jehan was a social worker who she trusts because of his grassroot connections with the locals and that Sheikh was not a criminal.
Sandeshkhali, South 24 Parganas: Shah Jehan Sheikh, an unrepentant criminal in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas involved in a spate of bloody terror that has hit the state’s bordering region with Bangladesh, was named by his parents after the Mughal emperor because they wanted him to earn fame.
But, the four letter word turned fear instead of fame.
Locals in Sandeshkhali, a sleepy district split into two parts and sandwiched between North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, say Shah Jehan has unleashed a reign of terror on an unprecedented scale, hitting out at his rivals for nearly two decades. The area is important and falls under the Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha constituency which is now being represented by Abhishek Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress leader and nephew of Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee.
Shah Jehan is powerful, backed by Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress almost like the way he was once supported by the state’s ruling Left Front. And every time there is a FIR registered against him by some cop who is not aware of his antecedents and connections with the local politicians, he disappears for a few days.
And then, he emerges again to tear up the copy of the FIR right inside the police station. It is a scene straight out of Bollywood.
A fortnight ago, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee told reporters that Shah Jehan was a social worker who she trusts because of his grassroot connections with the locals and that Sheikh was not a criminal. She refused to answer questions from reporters who said they had information that Shah Jehan was directly responsible for the recent murders that rocked Sandeshkhali. Right after Banerjee made the comment, Shah Jehan emerged to say he was happy to work for the cause of TMC and for the party’s grassroots projects.
Shah Jehan was 17 years old when he kidnapped the owner of a local fisheries, an act that would mark the boy’s formal entry into the world of crime. That was when he was in school. And then, Sheikh dropped studies to take up a job of a ticket seller in a state transport bus. But he dropped the job soon to take to crime. He was quietly inducted to the Left Front’s gang of troublemakers to help seasoned politicians increase their grip in both North and South 24 Parganas. But, with the rise of Trinamool Congress, Sheikh started shifting allegiance because the TMC leaders offered him bigger role. Along with that came larger slice of cash, or what is now known as cut money in Bengal.
Groomed by Musalman Sheikh, the CPM Panchayat Head in Sandeshkhali, Shah Jehan was employed as a tea supplier. It was around 2000-2001 when the Left ruled supremely in the state, he started his crime chart. and was backed by the Left. In 2009, she shifted allegiance and walked across to Trinamool Congress. And eventually, he was made the Sandeshkhali Block Trinamool Congress President. And then, he was made the Panchayat Head of Sarberia-Agarhati Panchayat.
Shah Jehan grew, grew and grew. He developed a band of over 200 followers who would wreak havoc at the slightest of instructions from Sheikh. These followers could travel all across Sandeshkhali in their booming Royal Enfield bikes, many even carried 6MM pistols. Shah Jehan now takes cut money from all those who are in the fisheries, real estate and garments business in the region. And then, he and his men are allegedly involved in cross border smuggling of gold, women for prostitution, expensive life saving medicines and rice to neighbouring Bangladesh. There is nothing on paper to prove how much of cash he demands but it's rumoured that he takes nearly 20 percent of cash each time the fisheries auctions take place. Huge tracts of land he has illegally occupied from gullible farmers are used by his men to breed fish.
There are over 40 cases of murder, arson, looting, inciting communal violence registered against Shah Jehan but the cases have hardly progressed beyond the FIR stage. “There is always someone protecting him, else he disappears from a month or so from the region. He is powerful because he has the state on his side,” says Debtanu Lahiri, a political activist. A fortnight ago, one Pradip Mandal - rumoured to be close to the BJP - was shot dead in Sandeshkhali. Mandal’s family blamed Shah Jehan and approximately 25 of his followers for the murder. An FIR was also lodged. But within days, Mandal’s family left Sandeshkhali and now they cannot be traced by the cops. It is rumoured that Shah Jehan’s men forced them to leave their home and settle elsewhere, preferably in Kolkata.
Shah Jehan - claim many in Sandeshkhali - also targeted cops, lawyers, prosecutors and even journalists who sought to stand in his way. He leads the local mafia in Sandeshkhali from the front, and shapes people’s social and economic lives in parts of the bordering district in the Southern fringes of the state.
Debtanu says responses to Shah Jehan’s operations are always mixed in Sandeshkhali. Elderly people recall Shah Jehan with fondness, describing the mafia boss as a gentleman because he was always there to help. “He often tells people that as long as he is there, everyone will have jobs and that he will take care of them very well. People do not care about his criminal antecedents, they just love him.”
He dresses in a pair of jeans and bush shirts, prefers to back brush his hair. In the recent Lok Sabha elections in Basirhat, he worked overtime to help TMC candidate Nusrat Jehan win her maiden elections. Jehan’s BJP rival, Sayantan Basu, worried by Shah Jehan’s influence, sought presence of additional CRPF soldiers in the area. He still could not win the show, lost to Nusrat Jehan. Prior to the elections, Shah Jehan helped the chit fund owners rule the region with his clout, and he was handsomely rewarded.
Shah Jehan knows the noose is tightening on him and the BJP is gaining ground in Bengal after the party’s superlative performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections. He is lying low. But that does not mean he is down and out. People in Sandeshkhali say when darkness falls, Shah Jehan returns to his base to take stock.
The king of Sandeshkhali remains unrepentant. He has the state on his side.