West Bengal is cowering under two diseases—dengue and the National Register of Citizens panic. The first one is seasonal; the latter is potentially permanent. Both are grim reapers. In 2019, Bengal leads the country in dengue-related deaths, with the figure till August reaching 22. But its spread—Calcutta and neighbouring districts—is limited, and changing seasons hold the promise of a respite.
But fear of NRC has the state in a vice-like grip—allegedly causing 11 deaths (some of them suicides) till September 25. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee on September 23 claimed that the lurking fear led five to take their own lives. Though there is no official count, people trying to organise protests against NRC have collated a list of 20 NRC-related deaths. The district-wise break-up shows an even spread—from Cooch Behar in north Bengal to North 24 Parganas in the south, via West Medinipur and 10 other districts.
Ever since Assam’s final NRC list was released on August 31, fear spread in Bengal about the impending peril. A mad scramble began for gathering legacy papers. But many a poor villager returned empty-handed from government offices—land ownership documents were not found; some could not get Aadhaar cards made. As the spectre of banishment stalked the land, the deaths started. Tasleema Bibi tried hard to obtain an Aadhaar card for her and her husband. Driven to distraction, then despair, she died on September 25 in Hingangunj, N. 24 Parganas.
On October 1, at a Calcutta rally, Union home minister Amit Shah further stoked the fire when he said Bengal would see the NRC exercise only after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. Mamata’s assurances that there won’t be NRC in Bengal are failing to convince, confesses a person close to her.
Around 40 people—all old, poor and Muslim—from Tufanganj, Cooch Behar, wait patiently at the office of the Directorate of State Archives, Calcutta. Altajul Haque explains that they have come for legacy certificates. The office is empowered to issue these if their ancestors’ names figure in the electoral roll of 1952 onwards. Though permanent residents of Bengal, they have come to collect documents for relatives, mostly daughters married in neighbouring Assam. According to one official, 40-50 people come to get the certificate daily. Since it has been announced that legacy certificates to permanent residents will be issued later, people started thronging municipal offices, post offices and other government offices to get birth certificates, ration cards or Aadhaar cards.
Mamata is assuring the people that NPR is not NRC.
Indeed, consternation is gathering apace—the Calcutta Corporation offices see 300-400 people collecting birth certificates daily. In Birbhum, post offices are flooded with requests for Aadhaar card corrections, says Goutam Ghosh, a CPI(M) district secretariat member. “At least 200 queue up daily at Bolpur post office, but employees can handle only 100 cases a day. The remaining 100, women and old alike, are forced to wait the whole night in the open.” Sabir Ahmed, a researcher with Pratichi Institute, says, “Mass hysteria over NRC is developing into a psychic disorder in some, a symptom I am seeing at close quarters.”
Meanwhile, the Centre girds its loins for the NRC exercise. In Assam, NRC was implemented under the direct order and supervision of the Supreme Court; in Bengal and rest of the country it will be a purely governmental exercise. There is a difference here. In Assam, citizens were asked to submit citizenship documents, after examining which the administration dropped around 19 lakh from the final NRC list, making them non-citizens. Here, a National Population Register (NPR) will be prepared first by conducting house-to-house enumeration. According to Biplab Bhattacharjee from the “No NRC Movement”, people will be asked 15 questions (borrowed from a set of 29 used by the census department) for NPR. On examination, if cases are deemed ‘doubtful’, they would be asked to submit proofs, failing which they would be marked non-citizens. Thus, NPR will automatically lead to NRC, turning the exercise into a desk job.
Already, a pilot study in various parts of the country has been conducted; in Calcutta, some Muslims, including a leading writer, was served a notice to submit documents. Gazette notification has now been issued to start work on NPR—the first part of the NRC exercise—from April 1, 2020, to be completed by September 30. In West Bengal, where Amit Shah’s declared intention is to “throw out infiltrators” through the NRC, the exercise will be done in collaboration with the census department.
However, Mamata is interpreting the NPR as having no bearing on NRC. In her bid to placate people by saying that NPR is part of the census, she is openly prevaricating. Her assertion that she would not allow NRC in Bengal is hollow too. The NRC exercise, disguised as the NPR, is on its way.
Tragically, barring a few ineffectual meetings, the opposition Left and the Congress are doing little to highlight the stealthy march of NPR. CPI(M) central committee member Abhas Roy Choudhury admits the weak response. Congress leader Arunava Ghosh says that at two recent meetings held in Canning, Sundarbans, people were desperate for information on NRC. Why, then, is the Congress not campaigning against NRC? “People have voted for the BJP. Let them learn it through hard experience,” he rejoins sarcastically.
It follows then: in the absence of a political movement against NRC, people are left to fend for themselves, desperately scrambling for probable lifelines. A few citizens’ groups are trying to build public opinion. The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, No NRC Movement, and Solidarity Against NRC (Murshidabad) are trying to raise their voices, but are a negligible force. Tahedil Islam of Solidarity admits that most of these are based in social media; they don’t have any access to rural Bengal. On November 11, No NRC Movement called for a state convention in Calcutta, where a despondent organiser compared their one lakh members in social media with the 100-odd physically present.
The BJP’s assertion that once the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is passed, Hindus who came from, and would be coming from, neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, would be eligible for citizenship, is also doubtful. There is widespread apprehension that the onus will be on Hindus to prove that they were victims of ‘religious persecution’. The BJP’s Jayprakash Majumdar and others vehemently counter that fear.
A report of the joint committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was presented in Parliament on January 7, 2019. The report says, “The Committee’s attention was drawn to the fact that there is no mention of the term ‘religious persecution’ anywhere in the Bill…. The legislative department has clarified that the Bill has been drafted in such a way that it gives reference to notifications dated September 7, 2015 and July 18, 2016, which mention…“religious persecution”. Between proof of ‘persecution’ and legacy documents, fearful millions contemplate their fate before the test that is NRC.
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta