Bagtui/Rampurhat: Homes reduced to blackened rubble, smashed windowpanes, kitchens with utensils still neatly arranged amid charred debris, eight freshly dug graves, one of them for a small child. These are the remnants of the murderous horror that gripped Bagtui village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on 21 March.
On Wednesday, the village bears a deserted look, save for a strong security presence, including police guards and Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel. Many terrified residents have fled, some without even locking their doors.
The police have been tight-lipped so far about what triggered the violence, but the villagers here claim that the chain of violence started Monday evening, when local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader and reputed strongman Bhadu Sheikh was attacked with crude bombs and bullets as he sat sipping tea by the side of the road leading to his brick house.
Sheikh, the deputy pradhan of Barashal gram panchayat, was killed during the attack, but this was just the beginning, villagers said. Within an hour, soon after the police patrol van had left, the carnage began, with a mob torching down four houses.
In all, eight people lost their lives — one man, six women, and a seven-year-old girl — with their bodies burned beyond recognition. The police have arrested 20 people in connection with the killings but have not said anything yet about motive or how exactly the violence unfolded.
Speaking to villagers, however, ThePrint pieces together the details of the horrific night of the massacre, and hints of its possible linkages with volatile local politics and the illegal sand and stone mining operations that are rampant in this region.
What happened on the night of 21 March?
At 8pm Monday, as news of Bhadu Sheikh’s death spread, some villagers rushed to the hospital while others retreated to their homes. At around 9pm, residents recall, they heard loud booming sounds and quickly latched their doors.
When they peeped outside, they saw motorcycles up in flames, but not much else was visible: the village has no street lights and the fires affected the electrical connections in many houses. It was one of the darkest nights the village had ever seen, in more ways than one.
“I was sure we would die,” says 34-year-old Ummati, who lives next to one of the destroyed houses. “I locked my daughter inside the room. We saw the flames, we heard someone screaming bachao, bachao (help, help), but we were so helpless. I don’t know if this fear will ever let us live here.”
Ummati left the village after the attack and returned only to feed her cattle, she tells ThePrint. Her heart goes out to her neighbours who died.
“The small girl next door had just begun school last month. I would walk to school with her every morning. She died in the fire yesterday,” she recalls, visibly shaken. Her daughter stands quietly by her side — she has not gone to school today.
Fatima Bibi, another resident, believes that the massacre could have been averted had the police stayed on in the village after Bhadu Sheikh’s death. “They knew that a political leader of the village had been murdered,” she says.
It’s a common sentiment here.
“Had the police come here on time, so many lives would not have been lost. The violence broke out right after the police patrol van left the village,” says a resident, refusing to disclose his name. “You will leave the village and return home, I have to continue living here.”
Who were the victims, and were they targeted?
The eight dead have been identified as Mina Bibi, Rupali Bibi, Jahanara Bibi, Lili Khatun, Sheli Bibi, Nurnehar Bibi, Kazi Sajidur Rahaman, and seven-year-old Tuli Khatun.
Seven of them were relatives and lived together at a house belonging to Sona Sheikh, who villagers claim was once a close aide of the slain TMC leader Bhadu Sheikh. However, Sona Sheikh is reportedly one of the accused named in the FIR for Bhadu’s death.
A forensic team reaches the spot to gather more evidence. Of the four homes that were charred, the police have cordoned off only two. Sona Sheikh’s house seems to have borne the maximum damage.
Villagers working at a nearby field say that they believed Sona had good relations with Bhadu and would follow his instructions. “Bhadu helped Sona build his two-storey home just one year ago. And now see, the violence has left nothing of it, including the family,” says a villager who did not want to be named.
Another villager, however, hints at the involvement of Bhadu and Sona in the illegal sand and stone trade.
“Bhadu Sheikh and his aides had side businesses of sand and stone trucks. They would coordinate with each other. But what they did, we never asked specifically. We knew them but we never spoke about their business activities,” he says.
Illegal sand mining is rampant in Birbhum District. According to some news reports, Sona Sheikh, who also allegedly had TMC links, and Bhadu Sheikh had fallen out with each other due to their interests in the mining business. ThePrint, however, could not independently confirm this.
The village is usually “peaceful”, the residents insist, but Bhadu’s elder brother, too, was killed here last January. According to the 2011 census, the village has just over 1,100 households and a population comprising primarily Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. All those who were killed as well as those arrested belong to the latter community.
The police have arrested 20 people for murder and rioting so far, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. On Wednesday, all 20 were produced before a court in Rampurhat, a municipality in Birbhum district. No defence lawyer appeared for the accused.
“Rampurhat has never seen such a gruesome crime before,” public prosecutor Surajit Sinha said while seeking 14-day police custody for 10 of the arrested accused, which was granted by the court.
Azad Choudhury, Intaj Sheikh, Mufijul Sheikh, Rustom Sheikh, Rohan Sheikh, Moushim Sheikh, Nayan Deewan, Mufiuddin Sheikh, Nazeer Hussain and Tousib Sheikh have been sent to police custody. The remaining 10 were sent to judicial custody.
“We have found specific evidence against 10 so we have taken their remand. But I cannot disclose any details as the matter is under investigation,” inspector in-charge Soumajit Basu says.
With the opposition BJP calling for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s resignation and a probe by a central agency over the killings, and with the spotlight on political violence in the state, the state government is currently under pressure.
The CM has formed a special investigation team comprising senior IPS officers to probe the massacre, and the state’s Director General of Police, Manoj Malviya, has also been camping in Rampurhat since Tuesday.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)