It’s 10.30 am Thursday, and Sabina Bibi and her daughter Hena Khatun have been waiting in a queue for over five hours at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s headquarters in Esplanade. Hailing from South 24 parganas, they are here to get a birth certificate for Sabina’s 7-year old son. Also in the queue is Nitai Bhattacharya from Topsia, who wants his son’s birth certificate corrected.
Sabina and Nitai are among the hundreds who are queueing up outside government offices across West Bengal to get their official documents in order. Reason: A wave of panic fuelled by political rhetoric and rumours that the National Register for Citizens (NRC), which is being implemented in neighbouring Assam, will come to West Bengal, too.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly asserted that her TMC government will not let the NRC be conducted in the state. But this month, after the final NRC list was released in Assam on August 31, BJP leaders announced that the register will be applied in West Bengal.
Such is the fear now that over the last month, Muslim organisations have been distributing pamphlets, holding seminars and asking people to get their documents in order.
The rumours, say officials and social workers, are many: The ongoing Electors Verification Programme will pave the way for NRC; the National Population Register exercise to start from April 2020 and the Census enumeration from March 2020 will also bring the NRC.
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“Every day, over 250 people are queuing up for birth certificates, death certificates, correction of documents, etc. But we have the manpower to cater to only about 100 requests in a day. All of this is because of the panic over NRC… and the rumours that it will be implemented shortly. These rumours are baseless. The Chief Minister is making announcements every day asking people not to panic,” says Atin Ghosh, Deputy Mayor, Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
It’s not just Kolkata, officials say the panic has spread to many districts, especially Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Alipurduar, and North and South 24 parganas that border Bangladesh and Assam.
“We have been standing in queue since 6 am. We came yesterday too, but our turn did not come. We did not apply for a birth certificate for my brother who was born in a Kolkata hospital in 2012. Now people are saying NRC is coming and we have to get all our documents,” says Hena.
“My birth certificate has my name spelled wrong. This is the third day that I am here. I need to get this done before the NRC is applied,” says Muhammed Zeeshan, a school student.
Muhammed Nooruddin, a former president of the Bengal chapter of Jamat-e-Islami Hind, says the “central government can bring in the NRC in Bengal anytime”.
“We have asked people, not only Muslims but also Dalits and SCs, to ensure that their documents are error-free. We asked them to get birth and death certificates, land records, voter ID cards and Aadhaar cards ready,” says Nooruddin.
The fear, he says, is that many do not have records pre-1971, the cut-off year applied in Assam.
The issue, meanwhile, has triggered a political firestorm with top leaders of the Opposition BJP, which is posing a stiff challenge to the TMC, claiming in a series of press conferences that the party-led central government bring NRC in Bengal, and that “Hindus are safe”.
On the other side, TMC chief Banerjee has initiated a campaign to dispel the rumours, even holding a padayatra in Kolkata. She has asked officials at the block level and her party’s MLAs to conduct door-to-door campaigns.
Her government has also issued advertisements and videos carrying the Chief Minister’s appeal asking people not to panic. “The NRC will never happen in Bengal. Please do not pay heed to rumours. The Census is a routine affair and happens every 10 years,” she says in one of the videos.
In the past week, the state government has claimed that 11 people have died due to “panic” and “depression” over not possessing the required documents. Following the deaths, the TMC says it has even extended monetary help to the families.
“The Electors Verification Programme, the National Population Register and the Census are routine exercises. But people panicked and rushed to government offices to either apply for documents or carry out corrections in papers they have. Touts have also been spotted in districts like Murshidabad, Malda, and South and North 24 parganas, who promise pre-1971 documents and dupe people,” says Jim Nawaz, a social activist who is part of a group holding seminars in districts to tackle the rumours.
“We are telling people not to panic and that the NRC will not happen here. But at the same time, we are also helping them know how to apply for records and documents,” says Nawaz.
But on the ground, the panic continues to spread. “We have four ration cards in our family, including for my daughter who is married. We do not use the cards to buy anything from ration shops. But neighbours told me that this is residential proof and should be digitised. I have come here for that. Who knows when the NRC will be implemented?” says Barnali Saha, who is waiting outside Garfa office of the KMC.
“Every day, a minimum of 400 people come here to get their ration cards digitised,” says Ruma Chakraborty, Inspector, KMC. “You know very well why is this happening. NRC fears, what else.”