How deep the link is between the mafia economy and the political administration was illustrated in the efforts of the political leadership of the state in suppressing the violence that was seen in the village of Bogtui.
Bhadu Sheikh, a local mafia don in a small village in the district of Birbhum of West Bengal, received his 15 minutes of fame in his murder and post-murder violence. The incidents in the village Bogtui received national attention for the abysmal law and order administration in West Bengal, a sensitive border state. What none cared to look at is the state of the economy of the eastern state, a factor that has led to such a pathetic rule of law there. If West Bengal looks like a place far removed from civilisation one is accustomed to, the reason lies in its economic framework.
Bhadu Sheikh was a helper in a chicken shop in a small village near Rampurhat town of West Bengal. He rose in career when he bagged a job as a driver in the local police station. This helped him in connecting with local truckers who ferried stone chips, sand and also coal along NH14 and NH114A passing through the sub-division of Rampurhat. With Jharkhand and Bangladesh located on two sides Rampurhat provided easy passage for these products to Bangladesh and elsewhere in West Bengal. For ambitious Bhadu Sheikh this familiarity with the transport system was useful.
The area has more than 350 stone crushers and rich in illegal sand mining activities along three rivers the Ajay, Mayurakshi and Brhamani—reportedly there are large scale sand mining in 80 locations in the area. Such illegal activities started in a small way in the 1970s when the Congress was in power, scaled up later during the Left Front hegemony and turned into an organised mafia business since 2011 when Mamata Banerjee came to power. Bhadu Sheikh had his elementary lesson in the trade of extortion from the stone and sand mafia towards the end of the Left rule. He switched over to the ruling Trinamool Congress when the regime changed.
How much do the mafia leaders collect from the illegal check posts they have set up on roads under the nose of the state administration? It is reported that more than 700 trucks of varied capacities pass daily through these points and pay Rs 2000 or more depending on the load these carry. The extortion is so organised that trucks are handed over receipts by these check posts for safe passage once money is paid.
Bhadu Sheikh, the former helper at a small chicken shop, prospered with the prosperity of the sand, stone mining transport business. With borders close by, the route through Rampurhat provided safe passage for truckers carrying cows and coal to neighbouring Bangladesh. Naturally, the collection at the mafia posts varied directly depending on the size and illegality of the cargo. Some estimated that the daily collection in the area worked out to Rs 75 lakh, or more than Rs 20 crore a month.
It is natural that Bhadu Sheikh turned into a billionaire with his enterprising activity of collecting payment and providing safe passage to trucks which paid the tola. Of course Bhadu had to share the booty with the police, administration and his party hierarchy. His wife even went on record, after Bhadu was eliminated, that he used to share the collection with all of the others. The problem of any Mafiosi begins with the sharing of spoils. Bhadu Sheikh had rivals within his own village and from among his relations. His brother Babbar Sheikh was murdered in January 2021. Bhadu managed to survive with his pack of armed body guards till 21 March 2022.
The fight within the mafia illustrates the economy of the region as also the state of West Bengal. Since the 1970s, political instability and trade unionism slowly killed the rich economy that the state inherited. After the liberation of Bangladesh, passage between India and Bangladesh became easy. This helped illegal border trade which increased in volume in due course. The illegal business thrived with complete political polarisation of the state – first under the Left and now under TMC. When the political administration finds nurturing such local mafia useful to perpetuate their political stranglehold mafia economy thrives.
How deep the link is between the mafia economy and the political administration was illustrated in the efforts of the political leadership of the state in suppressing the violence that was seen in the village Bogtui. First the TMC’s powerful district president Anubrata Mandal, another person with illustrious background rising from the position of a fish shop assistant, attributed the fire in village homes to some short circuit or so. Then chief minister sent her trouble shooter, minister and Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim, to appease the affected. To stop the snowball effect finally Mamata Banerjee herself went there before cooling herself in the hills of Darjeeling. Even Kolkata High Court did not find such wanton disregard of legal system amusing and handed over the investigation to the CBI. Once so much illegal collections come to light in the CBI report, the money laundering act may get invoked. This will certainly bring forth the unprecedented level of illegal financial activity aided and abetted by the political system of the state.
The state BJP leadership has taken up the issue despite having no base among those affected but more important is the decision by the Kolkata High Court. When political administration is in hand and glove with a mafia run economic system, another political outfit—BJP in this case—may not have much faith among those affected. It is a clear case of failure of the political system of the state and deserves to be handled only by the judiciary. A civilised economic system must be brought back in West Bengal and only the judges can do that.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.