The story of Sandeshkhali: Imagine a Bollywood potboiler

A local strongman starts as a driver with odd jobs, an assistant collecting fares from passengers; known to talk his way through, gets drawn into politics by his uncle, catches the attention of the local and powerful politician. Gets down to what the community knows best as business, notably the fish trade, grows his empire and clout, finally can influence votes. Grows immensely as both business and political leverage, even the police consult him and listen to him.

Then comes the sordid part! Officially it is said he owns one cluster of 14 acres and another of 16 acres but stories around him suggest his massive land grabs are all off the books, which is understandable too; as one can see huge fish farms today, converted from what was once villager’s lands.

Stories emerge of intimidation, harassment and sexual abuse, all leading to villagers systematically being forced to hand over their lands on the promise of annual rents. In some cases, rent did come but only for a year or two; if anybody dared to remind, he would be punished, made into a lesson for others.

Years and years of organised crime, land grabbing built upon spreading fear and physical abuse, with connivance and the protection of law.

Now comes the twist. A scam in the state leads the police and the investigation team to this largely unknown location! When they arrive, the investigating team members are thrashed and chased away. This catches national attention and herein starts the next chapter in the story!

Samasthali is the area, some 80 km south east of Kolkata, an island with some ten villages bordered in between two rivers, Dansa and Kalindi, part of the Sundarbans delta. Farmland converted into fish farms. If the villagers did not agree to leave, shallow rivulets would be dug to allow saline water from the river to flow into the land, rendering it infertile.

Meanwhile, the rags to riches hero becomes the alleged villain and is absconding! The courts have ordered his arrest, the state governor has demanded he be apprehended.

Around this time, it is also the impending Lok Sabha elections and the state government has had to swing into ‘save mode’, initiating action to start having the grabbed land returned to the original owners. Reports suggest some 150 out of the 400 complaints have been addressed. The CM has said her government is against any form of land grab and the guilty would be punished. But the alleged atrocities have been committed by her party leadership in this area, the state police is unbale to apprehend their own leader, it’s the substance on which cinema thrives.

Unbelievable to imagine in today’s day and age, such atrocities are regular par for the course! Such is the substance of a Bollywood movie, except these are true stories. Or, such stories become the content of our cinema! One is the image, the other the mirror. But which is what?

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