Hussainur, 5, is scared his mother will die like his father. Three brothers are afraid they will meet the same fate as their sister who died after a heart attack. A daughter says they are fast running out of money, with father without work and mother dead.
In the panic triggered by rumours of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has claimed 11 deaths. The three families above claim their members are among them, after a futile struggle to put together papers, including those showing pre-1971 lineage (the NRC cut-off year in Assam).
The Sunday Express visited the three families, travelling through the Hingalgunj, Basirhat, Hasnabad and Bhangar belt in South and North 24 Parganas bordering Bangladesh, and discovering large-scale fear among villagers, many of whom have come back from other states where they work, to line up before BDO and panchayat offices for documents.
In end August, Muslim organisations had distributed pamphlets, held seminars and asked people in Bengal to keep their papers ready, claiming the NRC might be brought in. Soon after, the BJP had asserted that after Assam, Bengal would see the NRC exercise.
Opinion | The NRC spectre
Khairun Nahar Bibi of Sholadana village in Basirhat says her husband Kamal Hossain Mondal, 32, a brick kiln worker, had been making the rounds of land record and panchayat offices for two weeks. “He wanted to find land papers in the name of his father, who died 30 years back. But he could not find them. He was depressed and ate very little. Day and night he used to say we would be driven out because the NRC was coming. On Saturday night (September 21) too, he kept saying those things, watching news of political leaders talking about the NRC in Bengal.”
On September 22, Mondol was found hanging from from a mango tree, leaving behind wife Khairun and two sons. Cries Khairun, “My younger one shouts at me every time I even touch a document. He says if I touch the papers, I will die too.”
Mondol’s elder brother Hasan says his death has devastated them. “He was the smartest of us all and the whole family was depending on him to get the papers… I think he felt sad that he could not save the family.”
Police recorded an unnatural death case. A senior Basirhat police officer, who didn’t want to be named, said, “Internal inquiry is on, we are looking at the NRC angle.”
Twenty kilometres away, in Gajipara (under Hingalgunj police station), Momena Bewa, 59, went to her brother’s house in neighbouring Bankra on September 20 to seek the family’s pre-1971 land records. Says Moidul, 32, one of her three sons, “Everyone said we needed such records. When she couldn’t find them, there was an altercation between her and her brother, and she fell ill.”
Musharaf, 35, says they rushed Momena to a hospital in Basirhat, where she died. Doctors cited the cause of death as ‘acute myocardial infarction’ or heart attack.
Soon after, local Trinamool Congress MLA Debesh Mondol visited the family and assured help. Police have recorded the statement of the family members.
Standing outside their kuchcha house with plastic sheets for roof, Moidul says the fear is real. “We do not know what will happen… Some of the family members do not have even an Aadhaar card. With mother gone, how will we trace papers of land?”
In Katakhali, also in Hingalgunj, Taslima Bibi, 47, left behind three sons and a daughter. Tohmina says Taslima and her father Sayeb Ali Gaji had been in panic since the last week of August. “The two of them and my younger brother don’t have Aadhaar cards. So father came home from Chennai, where he worked as a beedi worker, and started frequenting the BDO and panchayat office. My mother too went with him.”
The stress told soon, Tohmina, 22, adds, as Taslima also lost the daily wages she earned as a beedi worker. “There were frequent fights over this. On the afternoon of September 25, after one such fight, mother fell ill. We took her to Basirhat hospital, where she died.”
Doctors recorded the cause as cardio-respiratory failure. Police have told the family they are investigating how the death is linked with the NRC.
At the Barunhat Rameshwarpur gram panchayat office 2 km away, there is no let-up in the queues outside. “We are all tense,” says Rehman Ali, among those lined up on September 27. “Now there are touts who approach us saying they will arrange the pre-1971 papers. Some of our village folk have been duped.”
Helping them fill forms, a youth, one of a group, says, “I used to give tuitions in the village. When the rush started, I thought why not make some money? I fill up all kinds of forms for people… We take whatever we can, not too much. This month has been good for us.”
A photocopier cum ‘cyber cafe’ centre beside the panchayat office is also bustling with business. “We earlier used up a bunch of papers (500) in a week. Now two such bunches get used up in a day,” says owner Surpiyo Das. He informs that there are technical glitches with the Electors’ Verification Programme (EVP) — one of the rumours doing the rounds is that the EVP will ultimately pave the way for the NRC in the state. “The Election Commission server hangs frequently, and in a day only four-five people can get the process done.”
On the second floor of the panchayat building, Pinaki Das, husband of pradhan Chobi Mondol Das, says they are doing their best to spread awareness that there won’t be an NRC in Bengal. “We are holding small meetings in villages. But people are flocking the panchayat office,” he says.
At the panchayat office in Hasnabad, 6 km away, a meeting is on between BDO Arindam Mukherjee, officers and zilla parishad members. Says Mukherjee, “On September 9, a mob of over 6,000 people gathered at our office. They almost barged in and the window panes were broken. I had to call in police.” Since then, the BDO says, they have decentralised documentation work and are letting panchayat offices too accept applications.
Abu Taleb Gazi, a zilla parishad member, says, “We are having a hard time convincing people.”
Accusing the BJP of stoking people’s fears, Hingalgunj MLA Debesh Mondol says, “These people were born here, their forefathers were residents. The panic is driving them to death. I have visited some families who have lost their dear ones. We are with them. Our Chief Minister stands with them.”