“Who are you? Why are you here? Go away!” These were the stern words that greeted me as I stepped into Sandeshkhali on Saturday morning. The air was charged with suspicion as groups of people scrutinised not only my presence but also that of fellow journalists who had come to report on the incident involving the attack on Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials who were investigating the alleged ration distribution scam case in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal.

The rules were established from the outset – capturing images with a mobile phone is strictly prohibited. Approval from the local youths, who patrol the area on bikes, is required for all photographs taken. Specifically, taking pictures of the expansive marketplace operated by the influential Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shahjahan is strictly forbidden. Despite the national attention on the Sandeshkhali attack, the actual location of the incident seems unaffected by the media frenzy.

“Dada (Shahjahan) has the final say here,” declared a local man in his mid 20s. His words seem to ring true in this border village of Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas. Currently holding the position of president in the Sandeshkhali TMC unit, Shehjahan is also in charge of fisheries for the district council. He is the go-to individual for conflict resolution in the region, adept at mediating family disputes and settling land disagreements.

Shahjahan’s expansive residence, sprawling across 25 acres along the Vidyadhari riverbank, is a testament to his considerable financial influence in one of the poorest areas of the district. He is the undisputed lord of the land, and it appears that the local police operate under his directives.

In the last panchayat election, the TMC won both Sandeshkhali I and Sandeshkhali II blocks uncontested. He is expected to play a crucial role in securing the Bashirhat Lok Sabha seat for the TMC.

“They think they would be able to make it difficult for Trinamool Congress by framing me. That’s not going to happen. I am being framed. Don’t be scared of ED and CBI. All Trinamool Congress officials must continue their work for the party. We must remember what our Mamata Banerjee looked after us and our families,” said a voice purported to be Shahjahan’s in an audio message from an undisclosed location. The audio clip is viral on social media, but The Wire could not independently verify its authenticity.

Shahjahan’s rise within the TMC ranks has been spectacular. Starting as a small-time worker in fisheries and brick kilns in the early 2000s, he initially supported the CPI(M) but later joined the TMC under the patronage of district leader Jyotipriya Mallick when the party assumed power in 2011.

According to police sources, Mallick’s involvement played a role in excluding Shahjahan’s name from the chargesheet submitted to the court in connection with the alleged kidnapping and killing of three BJP workers in 2019. Interestingly, Mallick is currently in ED custody in connection with the same scam for which Shahjahan was raided on Friday. On Saturday, the Enforcement Directorate claimed that the amount of money it has currently traced in connection to the Bengal ration distribution scam is nearing an astonishing Rs 10,000 crore.

In a curious turn of events, the local Nazat police station on Saturday has filed a non-bailable FIR against ED officials. The West Bengal police filed three FIRs, one against ED officials for attempting to enter Shahjahan’s house without a search warrant, another against the alleged miscreants who attacked the central agencies’ officers, and the third based on a complaint submitted by the ED to the Superintendent of Police (SP) and Director General (DG) over email.

“Dada is like our god. We won’t tolerate any harm to him,” said the locals accompanying me during my visit. They were not ready to leave me alone even for a minute.

“The ED planned to raid and loot Shahjahan Bhai’s house. They wanted to frame him. They brought bags of money in their vehicle. We realised their tactics and chased them away from the area,” stated one of Shahjahan’s loyalists.

However, ED sources asserted that Shahjahan was inside his house during the raid, as indicated by his mobile tower location. He allegedly received advance information from Kolkata about the impending raid and was ready for a confrontation.  The swift arrival of a sizeable armed mob shortly after the ED raid suggested a carefully orchestrated plan for Shahjahan to evade the situation. The approximately 50 CRPF officials assigned to protect the ED officials found themselves overwhelmed by the forceful and angry crowd led by women.

Soon after the mob attack yesterday, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh sprang into action to term it as a reaction to the “effect of provocation”. Till the time of filing this report, Shahjahan Sheikh is yet to be arrested. Local sources in the area claim he has crossed over to nearby Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, another TMC leader, Shankar Adhya, was arrested by the ED late on Friday night for his involvement in the same ration distribution scam, following a 17-hour interrogation. ED officials faced violence from Adhya’s supporters while taking him to the CGO complex (ED headquarters) in Kolkata. Bongaon municipality’s former chairman Adhya was arrested in the early hours of Saturday.

After the arrest, his supporters reportedly attempted to obstruct investigators and threw stones at their vehicles. The CRPF personnel accompanying the ED team had to resort to baton-charging to control the situation. Adhya was presented in the Bankshall court on Saturday, and the court granted the ED 14-day custody of him.

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