Guns n’ prawns: The strongman who ruled Sandeshkhali’s blue economy

File photo of Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shajahan being produced at the Basirhat court, North 24 Parganas, on 29 February.  (PTI)
File photo of Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shajahan being produced at the Basirhat court, North 24 Parganas, on 29 February. (PTI)

Summary

  • Sheikh Shahjahan rode a bike, wore his shirt short so that his pockets could exhibit three revolvers. Sandeshkhali became his self-declared fiefdom. He forcefully grabbed agricultural plots and converted them into ponds, particularly for shrimp farming, villagers allege. What was his modus operandi?

Kolkata: As an unemployed youth, with not much of education, Sheikh Shahjahan’s interest in politics was primarily to run errands for political leaders and flaunt his importance among his peer group. Born to a poor wage earner in the 1980s, and growing up at his maternal uncle’s home in Sandeshkhali, a village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas, Shahjahan felt the need and urgency to carve out his own identity. His maternal grandfather, Moslem Sheikh, was a member of the gram panchayat. Shahjahan used this political proximity to the hilt.

Those were the heydays of Left politics in West Bengal and the young man was marked out for his brashness, fearlessness and his ability to herd a band of followers. Prominent CPI(M) leader, Nirapada Sardar, remembers him as a boy, who would fetch biscuits and tea for the leaders in political meetings and rallies.

But as Shahjahan’s popularity grew, the party started keeping a close watch on him. Sandeshkhali became his self-declared fiefdom. He rode a bike, wore his shirt short so that his pockets could exhibit three revolvers. Politicians, who need such men for spreading their clout, saw immense potential in the stocky man, people who have worked with Shahjahan told Mint.

Prominent CPI (M) leader, Nirapada Sardar, remembers him as a boy who would fetch biscuits and tea for the leaders in political meetings and rallies.

 

His fortunes rocketed under the current ruling party in the state, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). Shahjahan developed close relationships with some of the party’s leaders. But, the fast rise in the corridors of power halted with his arrest on 29 February by the West Bengal police. Soon after, in March, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested him, and last week, he was held by the Directorate of Enforcement (ED), the agency responsible for fighting economic crimes in India.

While ED arrested Shahjahan because of his alleged role in a public distribution system corruption case—on charges of laundering the proceeds of crime from the scam—what emerged since February are more allegations, around sexual abuse and land grabbing. Post Shahjahan’s arrest, women in large numbers started protests, saying that they have been sexually abused, harassed, and even gang raped by Shahjahan’s men. Why did they keep quiet for so long? Because they were scared of Shahjahan and the punishment he would mete out to them: breaking the bones of their husbands and crippling them for life or setting fire on their harvest or subjecting them to further sexual torture.

A CBI team, along with security force personnel, at Sarberia in North 24 Parganas, on 8 March.
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A CBI team, along with security force personnel, at Sarberia in North 24 Parganas, on 8 March. (HT)

Besides women, men also complained of Shahjahan’s alleged role in economic offences—forcefully grabbing agricultural plots and converting them into ponds, particularly for prawn and shrimp farming. We will come to this modus operandi in a bit.

As of now, ED has attached his properties worth nearly 13 crore. This includes land, houses, jewellery and money in the bank. To put together this story, this writer spoke to the villagers from Sandeshkhali, political leaders, ED officers, and people who have worked with Shahjahan. Most of them didn’t want to be identified.

Political hot potato

Rekha Patra is BJP’s candidate from the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency.
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Rekha Patra is BJP’s candidate from the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency. (PTI)

Shahjahan was a Zilla Parishad (an elected body representing a rural district) member but he had direct access to top men in our party," said a TMC activist who didn’t want to be identified.

The party in the state denies this claim.

State irrigation and water minister Partha Bhowmik, who was deputed to Sandeshkhali to assuage tensions, told Mint that Shahjahan’s activities failed to reach the top bosses in the party because of an organizational weakness and attempt by local leaders to extend protection.

“For some reason, the truth never got to the surface. The moment we came to know, our honourable chief minister (Mamata Banerjee) did not dither to take strong action," he said. “We have suspended him and got him arrested too. Now, women of Sandeshkhali are happy and are not protesting, which means the issue is dead. Besides, we are trying to address the issues of returning land, paying instalments and dues," he added.

The issue is far from dead—in an election year, it can never be.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has quickly capitalized on the controversy and in what many consider a masterstroke, has fielded Rekha Patra, a woman allegedly sexually abused in Sandeshkhali, as its candidate from the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency—Sandeshkhali falls in this constituency. Basirhat has been a Trinamool stronghold since 2009.

Patra has been at the forefront of protests against such abuse. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to her on phone, describing Patra as ‘Shakti Swaroopa’ (in Hinduism, ‘shakti’ is a term associated with deities such as Durga and Kali). That audio clip has gone viral.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi (HT)

“You fought a big battle in Sandeshkhali. You are a Shakti Swaroopa. You sent such powerful people to jail. You have pulled off a very courageous act," the Prime Minister said during the conversation.

Meanwhile, Shahjahan’s lawyer, Raja Bhowmik, told Mint that his client is facing allegations of forceful land acquisition but nothing on women atrocities and sexual abuse. “It could be his accomplices but not him. One may complain or make allegations. But, it has to be tenable in the court of law. We are fighting for him. The money laundering part is a separate thing. I cannot comment on that," he said.

Green to blue

 Frozen shrimp is the most significant item in India’s basket of seafood exports.
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Frozen shrimp is the most significant item in India’s basket of seafood exports. (Bloomberg)

In the early 2000s, the Left front government in West Bengal came under pressure to ensure steady income for the state’s youth.

The three coastal districts of North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore have brackish water. This meant a potential for aqua farming. In 2009-10, if the profit from a bigha (less an acre) of paddy cultivation in the best of years was 5,000 in North 24 Parganas, the return from shrimp farming was at least eight times more, according to the Bengal unit of All India Kisan Sabha, the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India.

As people began to sniff money, agricultural plots saw physical and structural conversion. Water bodies or beels, 10-12 ft deep, started popping up everywhere. Instead of verdure landscape, the area was increasingly taking shades of a muddy blue.

But there was a catch: the Left government, already facing charges of forceful land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram (2007-08), was on the backfoot and had become cautious. It was looking to regularize the conversion of land by amending the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act 2005. The changed Act sought to bring areas within two kilometres of high tide line under aquaculture or farming.

Profit from brackish water farming is almost double the production cost. If the production cost of shrimp farming is 1 lakh a bigha, the fish farmer can potentially earn 2 lakh.

Even though the amendment was made, Sandeshkhali’s land records continue to show acres and acres of farmland, even though visibly it’s something else. This was largely because raiyat lands were once distributed among the tribals of Sandeshkhali by the government. Raiyat land refers to agricultural land meant to be used only for farming. Converting them is tough work (more of this later).

Sandeshkhali is at the mouth of Sunderbans delta, which comprises a cluster of nine islands. Entrapped on all sides by heavily meandering rivers, with deltas enclosing it, the land is both fertile and prone to facing the backlash of the saline sea water. Shrimp farming, therefore, came naturally to the inhabitants as one of the ways to augment their income. According to the state fisheries department, profit from brackish water farming is almost double the production cost. If the production cost of shrimp farming is 1 lakh a bigha, the fish farmer can potentially earn 2-3 lakh.

In 2022-23, India achieved an all-time high exports of seafood both in terms of volume and value by shipping 1,735,286 metric tonnes of seafood worth 63,969 crore ($8.09 billion), the Indian government had stated. Frozen shrimp, which earned 43,135.58 crore ($5,481.6 million), was the most significant item in the country’s basket of seafood exports.

This area is known for farming 16-17 species of rare prawn. Sandeshkhali accounts for a good amount of export. —An official

 

Going by the boom in Sandeshkhali, seafood traders estimate the blue economy in the area to total around 3,500-5,000 crore.

“This area is known for farming 16-17 species of rare prawn. Nandigram in East Midnapore accounts for a good amount of export and so does Sandeshkhali. Having the largest pool of brackish water in the country, West Bengal continues to be the second highest producer of shrimps and ranks first for culture and production of tiger prawns. Japan is a key importer of tiger prawn from Bengal," said an official from Bengal’s fisheries department who didn’t want to be named.

The ambitious Sheikh Shahjahan sniffed an opportunity here. Quick, liquid money and the key to becoming the most powerful man of the area.

The rise

In the 2009 general elections, the Left suffered political reverses, losing as many as 20 Lok Sabha seats to alliance partners, TMC and the Indian National Congress. Sheikh Shahjahan, thus far aligned with the Left, deserted the sinking ship.

A TMC politician allegedly bought 60 motorbikes for Shahjahan who then recruited young blood. Named the ‘Kobra Gang’, Shahjahan strutted about, his entourage of bikers and their pillion riders in tow. He would choose sundown for his movements inside the village because that was the time when the sound of motorbikes was the loudest and was enough to send tremors among villagers, people who have worked with Shahjahan told this writer.

Shahjahan’s movements were looked upon as warnings, a threat call to caution people as to what they would need to do in the polls: cast their votes for Shahjahan’s candidates or better still, stay away from the polling exercise, villagers said.

When we asked for a clarification from his lawyer, Raja Bhowmik, on Shahjahan’s role during elections, he said: “Why are you asking me? The police are there to ensure law and order and free and fair polls."

According to the villagers, Shahjahan’s power and authority peaked post 2011, when TMC trounced the Left and ended 34 years of their rule in West Bengal. Shahjahan held posts such as deputy pradhan (a decision-maker at the village-level constitutional body) and was a zilla parishad member. These posts may not appear very high-flying but it gave him power and greater control over the local economy.

Modus Operandi

Converting farmlands and raiyat lands into water bodies, particularly those belonging to tribal communities, isn’t easy. Such conversion can happen only if West Bengal’s land and land reforms department agrees to issue a no objection certificate and the fisheries department records the change by issuing a licence to fish.

But, Shahjahan and his brigade took the easy way out.

They convinced farmers and landowners that life would be bountiful if they leased out their land for prawn and shrimp farming. That would ensure steady yearly income, instead of having to depend on the vagaries of nature, which determines production when it comes to crop farming, villagers said.

Suspended Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shahjahan being brought to the City Sessions Court after he was arrested by ED, in connection with cases involving financial irregularities in Sandeshkhali, on Monday.
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Suspended Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shahjahan being brought to the City Sessions Court after he was arrested by ED, in connection with cases involving financial irregularities in Sandeshkhali, on Monday. (ANI)

Landowners who agreed to lease out their land for shrimp farming, were promised a payout of 10,000 for a bigha every year for three years. However, most of them never got to see the promised amount, villagers alleged.

After the first instalment, it was difficult to wring out money from Shahjahan. “Who would dare to pester him? Don’t we know the consequences?" said Dilip Sardar, a local fisherman. In fact, a year after the farmland became a full-fledged pond, it was difficult to claim the remaining money since, in the majority of cases, there were no lease agreements drafted. Also, the demarcation and boundaries, easily identifiable on land surface, became non-existent as ponds sprung up back-to-back.

“Shahjahan’s diktat was the last word. If anybody tried to disobey, the Kobra gang had multiple ways to settle scores," said 70-year-old Ajit Sardar of Dhuchnekhali village, in Sandeshkhali subdivision. “They would infuse saline water into the farmlands via lock gates set up for controlling the flow of water from the delta. Once the salt water entered the land, it was no good for any crop," he added.

If anybody tried to disobey, the Kobra gang had multiple ways to settle scores. —Ajit Sardar

 

After taking over such farmland, Shahjahan would allocate it to people loyal to him, for a yearly rent of 30,000-50,000 a bigha.

But he didn’t stop here. He also controlled the end-market—the shrimp export. Shahjahan would pressurize fish farmers to sell their produce at wholesale markets he controlled, and at a price fixed by him, villagers said. The rate was usually lower than the prevalent market rate. He controlled over a dozen wholesale markets in North and South 24 Parganas. He even fixed the rates for the fishing and export companies.

But some villagers said that he preferred prawn traders in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha and did not deal with exporters directly because of legal hassles it could create. Since most of the farming in Basirhat is on illegally converted water bodies, it’s a win-win for both the seller and the buyer. There are no taxes and the payment is always in cash, local fishermen said. Traders, in turn, received the produce at a discount. How much did Shahjahan make through this blue economy trade? We may know the answer once ED concludes its investigations but for now, the market price can give us an indication. Prawn and shrimp can fetch anywhere between 1,200 and 1,500 a kg in retail.

While running errands for politicians gave him the muscle power to intimidate—Shahjahan’s men attacked an ED team that went to Sandeshkhali on 5 January, the media had widely reported—the blue economy gave him control over people’s lives and livelihood.

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