The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider listing a public interest litigation seeking a court-monitored investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation or a special investigation team into reports of sexual assault on women in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali, reported PTI.

The Sandeshkali village in the North 24 Parganas district has been at the centre of a political row for nearly a month and has witnessed unprecedented protests by women regarding several allegations of sexual assault against Trinamool Congress leader Shahjahan Sheikh.

Sheikh has been absconding since January 5, when officials of the Enforcement Directorate were assaulted in Sandeshkhali while they were carrying out raids in connection with an alleged ration distribution scam. A mob allegedly attacked them with stones, bricks and batons when they had arrived at the Trinamool leader’s home.

Following this, several local women accused Sheikh and his associates of torturing and sexually harassing them for years and also of grabbing their land for prawn cultivation.

Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava subsequently filed a public interest litigation regarding the matter in the Supreme Court. Srivastava contended in his plea that the sexual assault allegations will not be investigated fairly and impartially if left to the state police as the main accused is an influential member of the party governing West Bengal, reported Live Law.

Along with the transfer of the investigation to a team under the monitoring of the court, Srivastava also said that the trial of the cases should be held outside of West Bengal.

On Friday, the advocate mentioned the petition before Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud for urgent listing. The chief justice agreed to look into the matter for listing.

Allegations against Sheikh

On February 8, women in Sandeshkhali held protests demanding that Sheikh and two of his associates – Shiba Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar – be immediately arrested.

Local women alleged that Sheikh and his associates used to survey homes to look for young women, whom they would take to the party office and assault sexually, according to PTI.

The protesting women on February 9 burnt down three poultry farms owned by Hazra, which they claimed were built on land forcibly grabbed from locals.

The next day, Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which bans the assembly of four of more persons, was imposed in different pockets of Sandeshkhali. Internet shutdown was ordered in 16 panchayats.

On February 13, the Calcutta High Court quashed the order imposing restrictions under Section 144 but ordered the deployment of additional armed police personnel in the area, reported The Indian Express.

National Commission for Women report

On the same day, the National Commission for Women sent its fact-finding team to Sandeshkhali to probe the sexual assault allegations.

In its report released on Thursday, the team stated that it found a “distressing pattern of negligence and complicity” by the West Bengal government and law enforcement officials, reported India Today.

It said that the women who “dared to speak” against the assault faced retaliation in terms of property confiscation, “arbitrary arrests of male family members, and future acts of brutality”.

“The gravity of the situation was underscored by an alarming incident wherein an NCW committee member recorded a woman’s testimony, only to have the recording deleted as the victim begged for her safety,” the report said.

The women’s commissions called for “urgent intervention for the brazen acts of intimidation and censorship”.

“It is evident that the West Bengal Police has failed in its duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society, necessitating immediate and concerted action at the highest levels of government,” it said.

Mamata Banerjee alleges ‘sinister design’

On Thursday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blamed the BJP for fomenting trouble in the area. She also asserted that 17 people had been arrested in the case.

Claiming that Sandeshkhali had been a “hotbed of communal riots” in recent years, the chief minister stated that her administration had implemented all necessary steps to restore peace in the area, according to India Today.

While speaking in the Assembly, Banerjee alleged that a “sinister design is at play” to foment trouble in the area.

On Wednesday, the Trinamool Congress said in a social media post that no allegations of rape of local women had been received by the State Women’s Commission.

“Even members of the National Commission of Women delegation corroborated this observation,” the party wrote. “BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata Party’s] delusional aspirations for Bengal should be buried with their false propaganda!”