The women of Sandeshkhali have claimed land grab and sexual assault by Sheikh Shahjahan (File).

Kolkata: Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee‘s government received a stern reprimand from the state’s High Court Thursday as it heard affidavits seeking probes into the allegations of extortion, land grab, and sexual assault that have surfaced from Sandeshkhali ahead of the Lok Sabha election.

A bench led by Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam told Ms Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress – which came under heavy fire after it was seen as shielding Sheikh Shahjahan, a local leader who is the primary accused – it could not shirk accountability in the event the allegations are found to be true.

“Even if one affidavit is correct, it is shameful. Even if one per cent is true it is absolutely shameful. West Bengal says it is safest for women? Even if one affidavit is proven to be right all of this falls,” he said, “Entire district administration and ruling party have 100 per cent moral responsibility”.

The court also ripped into the lawyer representing Sheikh Shahjahan, who was arrested on February 29 after spending nearly two months evading the authorities. The delayed arrest triggered criticism of the Bengal government and prompted the High Court to issue a pointed order to the state.

READ | Arrest Trinamool Strongman Sheikh Shahjahan, Fumes High Court

“(55) days you were on the run… playing hide-and-seek. Then you took an obscure stance. (Just because) you close your eyes the world doesn’t become dark,” the Chief Justice said.

Shahjahan’s lawyer responded: “I was told to be absconding (while) bail plea was pending.”

The court eventually reserved its verdict on this matter.

READ | Sandeshkhali Accused Shahjahan, On The Run For 55 Days, Arrested

In earlier hearings the court held Bengal Police to be “totally biased” and called for a “fair, honest, and complete investigation” into allegations against Sheikh Shahjahan. “There can be no better case than this… which requires to be transferred (and) to be investigated by the CBI,” it observed.

In focus today were petitions seeking intervention in some form or the other – either through a court-appointed commission or via the National Human Rights Commission – to allow the women of Sandeshkhali to make their complaints without fear of repercussion. BJP leader Priyanka Tibrewal, arguing for the petitioners, underlined the difficulty many face in filing those complaints.

“I have gone there… it is burdensome for them to come to Kolkata. I have suggested for a website to make it easier for them,” she said in response to the court saying, “The suggestion is to have a commission where people can approach and voice grievances. Other is for NHRC to intervene.”

“Both commission and website can be done. I went alone… I have seen that the rule of law is broken. (This is) not a political opinion. Land was also grabbed. It was a violation of human rights,” she said.

Ms Tibrewal also said she had received complaints from scores of women, but was refraining from naming them over concerns of reprisal. “There was a lady who went to visit her father… she was taken in daylight and raped by (Sheikh) Shahjahan and other workers,” she claimed.

Ms Tibrewal’s strong arguments prompted the court’s sharp remark about “moral responsibility”.

The case against Sheikh Shahjahan is currently with the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI.

READ | Setback For Bengal, Probe Against Shahjahan Stays With CBI

In a separate development, the Enforcement Directorate has said it has provisionally attached movable and immovable assets worthRs12.78 crore in connection with the Sheikh Shahjahan case.

The Sandeshkhali issue has become the focal point of attack of the Trinamool. The opposition has accused Ms Banerjee of shielding Sheikh Shahjahan. The Trinamool hit back by pointing to ex-wrestling body chief Brij Bhushan Singh, a sitting BJP MP accused of sexual assault by women wrestlers.

The BJP has also moved to field one of the women who have alleged sexual assault by Shahjahan – Rekha Patra – as a candidate from the Basirhat seat, which includes the island of Sandeshkhali.

READ | “Blessed Us, Like Lord Ram”: Sandeshkhali Candidate Praises PM

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Ms Patra on the telephone last month and labelled her “Shakti Swaroopa. “He has blessed us… like Lord Ram, like God…,” she declared to NDTV.

The entire Sandeshkhali case erupted on January 5, after an ED team on its way to conduct a raid was attacked by a mob of the now-suspended Trinamool leader’s supporters. Sheikh Shahjahan went on the run immediately after the attack, which left several probe agency officers injured.

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