NRC spoils puja for many in Bengal; urban poor too live in fear

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Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

Kolkata: There is no festivity in the Middye household in a village in Falta, around 45 km from the city. The children in the house are seeing their first Durga Puja without their father.

Kalachand Middye killed himself last month fearing that he would fail the National Register of Citizens (NRC) test. He knew that the dreaded NRC, has rendered lakhs stateless in no time and it is coming to West Bengal to chase out foreigners.

Beyond this, he had no idea what this was all about and why he, after so many decades, had to prove that he belonged to this land.

Middye hanged himself in the morning of September 22 when he went out for work.

The 43-year-old zari worker is among the 11 persons in West Bengal who reportedly died or killed themselves due to fear of NRC.

Family members of Middye say he saw the news on television in the neighbourhood and was upset. “But he never discussed anything with us. I had no inclination that he was contemplating suicide,” says wife Salma Bibi, adding that they do not own a television.

But why did fear grip Middye when the adult members of the family have voters’ ID and Aadhaar cards? Salma says the family does not have documents from 1971 and they are illiterate to understand what documents they need. This was the cause for concern for her husband as well as the others who died post NRC chaos in Assam.

The family’s mud and brick house speaks of the penury that the Middyes live in. While the couple’s eldest son, 17-year-old Alamin, is learning zari work, the youngest son is a toddler of two years. The state government was fast to pay a compensation amount of Rs 5 lakh to the family.

Diamond Harbour MP Abhishek Banerjee visited the bereaved wife and mother and promised job for Alamin and education to Middye’s daughter who is in Class IV now.

But why did fear grip Middye when the adult members of the family have voters’ ID and Aadhaar cards? Salma says the family does not have documents from 1971 and they are illiterate to understand what documents they need. This was the cause for concern for her husband as well as the others who died post NRC chaos in Assam.

A few villagers at Mamudpur in Falta (South 24 Parganas) where the Middyes live are also apprehensive even after assurances from the state government and the ruling party.

“Most of the people here are poor and many of them probably do not have documents other than voters’ ID and Aadhaar. So it is natural that people will be scared in the current situation,” says a shop owner.

The ruling Trinamool Congress party is scurrying to allay fears after the deaths occurring within a short span of time. At the same time, it is sharpening its claws for a fierce attack on the BJP that is pushing for expanding the NRC exercise to West Bengal before the 2021 state elections.

“I am staying here since 2009. Before marriage, I lived in Basirhat for over 23 years. I have all necessary documents, including PAN (permanent account number) card. But uncertainty still looms. People in our locality are panic-stricken. They are all talking about what will happen after the puja is over,” said the woman.

The deaths so far have occurred in the rural pockets of Bengal. Communication gap and illiteracy have only encouraged fear among the mass. This, however, does not mean people in the urban areas are sleeping in peace. The fear of displacement has gripped the urban poor too who settled in the city in various phases much after the NRC cutoff year.

A 20-year-old woman, who works in the city as a domestic help, is among the lakhs of people, cutting across religions, who have taken refuge among the hospitable Bengalis in West Bengal.

According to her, settlers in her locality (in North 24 Parganas) are worried and no one from the government or the ruling party has come to assure them.

“I am staying here since 2009. Before marriage, I lived in Basirhat for over 23 years. I have all necessary documents, including PAN (permanent account number) card. But uncertainty still looms. People in our locality are panic-stricken. They are all talking about what will happen after the puja is over,” said the woman.

NRC has its impact felt at all strata of the society in West Bengal where numerous Bangladeshi Hindus and Muslims have lived for decades. The bond of language has made the migration and assimilation of the so-called foreigners among locals smooth. No one complained publicly about the physical, social and economic adjustments until the right-wing ruling party at the Centre became resolute in driving out Bangladeshi Muslims.

A group of young women at a café in an upscale Kolkata locality is as perturbed by Amit Shah’s viciousness as residents of Mamudpur village. The college-goers were discussing how some of their parents are restless and want their children to go abroad. “But that cannot be the solution. The government cannot decide one fine day to drive out old settlers in the pretext of some age-old documents,” said one among the group. The annoyance was palpable.

The BJP, despite being pilloried from all quarters, has remained intractable in its decision on NRC. Amit Shah recently accused the state government of misleading people on the issue. Shah, a constitutional leader of a secular country, also assured people belonging to a few chosen religions of citizenship and threatened the ‘you know who’ with dire consequences.

Prasenjit Bose, convener of the Joint Forum Against NRC, says misinformation about the procedure is a major reason for the widespread panic in the state. “On one hand the BJP and the RSS are spreading rumours. Amit Shah is talking about deporting infiltrators but Narendra Modi is assuring his Bangladeshi counterpart that no one will be deported. So what is happening here in the name of NRC? It is a way of targeting the poor and polarising the population,” he adds.

On the other hand, Bose continues to explain, “The state government is not presenting facts about NRC and it has remained silent about the national population register (NPR) notification.”

“The NPR is the first step to NRC and is scheduled for 2020 but the state government is still not clear about what it wants to do,” says Bose. NRC remains the subject of debate and cause for worry even in this season of festivals that begins with Durga Puja. Bose’s forum is reaching out to people through public meetings and interactive sessions.

Jahangir Khan, a local Trinamool Congress leader in Falta, says the “Honourable chief minister and the honorable MP Abhishek Banerjee are doing their best to make people aware of NRC”.

But the chief minister and her party have other worries, such as the Sarada scam and the setback in the Lok Sabha elections. How the party tackles the saffron surge and stymies polarisation will decide whether Bengal becomes another playground of the BJP.

Avatar
Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

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