July 27, 2020
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National Population Registration Process Creates Panic, Deaths In Bengal, Is It Really Harmless?

Bengal's NPR is being seen in the same light as Assam's National Register of Citizens that made 19 lakh people 'illegal residents'. Millions in Bengal contemplate their fate.

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National Population Registration Process Creates Panic, Deaths In Bengal, Is It Really Harmless?
Protestors from Bengal and Assam agitate against the NRC in Calcutta
Photograph by Getty Images
National Population Registration Process Creates Panic, Deaths In Bengal, Is It Really Harmless?

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.

Photograph by PTI

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

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