Sabina Bibi, a resident of Basudebpur village in West Bengal's Murshidabad district, woke up at 3 am on Friday and cooked for her family before walking 7 kms to join many others waiting at the block development office to get their government documents updated.
Murshidabad is among the five border districts of West Bengal, which have seen an unprecedented rush for updating key documents like ration cards following apprehensions that an Assam-like National Register of Citizens (NRC), can also be introduced in the state even though chief minister Mamata Banerjee has ruled out such a possibility several times in the past.
Published on August 31, the final NRC, aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants in Assam, excluded 1.9 million people.
Union home minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah will address a gathering in Kolkata on October 1 on the issue of citizenship screening exercise at a time when panic over the issue has gripped large parts of the state.
Government officials in West Bengal claimed that a drive for issuing digital ration cards and the verification of the electoral rolls started last week has added to the NRC fears, leading to the heavy rush in the local offices. In villages, people believe that these documents are being updated as part of the NRC process, a block development officer (BDO) in Nadia district said on the condition of anonymity.
On Tuesday, the CM accused the BJP of spreading fear in the state by campaigning on the NRC, because of which, she said, six people have died.Of the six alleged suicides reported so far, three cases are linked to the NRC issue, the police said citing first information reports (FIRs).
In Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal, the claim of Mayanti Roy, whose husband committed suicide by hanging at their home on September 20, saida police officer requesting anonymity. The woman claimed in the FIR that her husband took his life after failing to get documents for NRC from government offices, the official added.
In another case in the same district, the Dokkhoda Roy alleged that his younger brother Ananda Roy was "under great panic due to the NRC and took his life", Tamal Das, inspector-in-charge of Mainaguri police station, said.
Rameswar Ojha, officer-in-charge of Falta police station in South 24 Parganas district said that they are treating the complaint of Salma Bibi, who alleged that her husband Kalachand Midya took his own life after days of depression following failure to find documents for an impending NRC exercise.
The five districts bordering Bangladesh — Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia — has high concentration of Muslims population. According to 2001 census, Cooch Behar has 25.54% Muslims, Jalpaiguri 11.51%, Malda 51.27%, Murshidabad 66.27% and Nadia 26.76%.
"Everyone in our area is telling that we would be driven out of India if there is any fault in our government documents. So I have come to the BDO office to get latest documents," Bibi said.
At the BDO office, Saira Bano was waiting under the scorching sun with her small child to get an error rectified in her ration card. In the adjoining Nadia district, Pritam Sarkar, stood in a queue the entire night at Palashipara branch of the State Bank of India, about 9 km away, to get an Aadhaar card. "I could not get my work done despite waiting for more than 20 hours because of the rush," he said.
They are not the only ones. Thousands of villagers are waiting for hours and even overnight in different districts of West Bengal in front of block development offices and civic bodies to get errors in different documents fixed, or to obtain new ones.
Khokon Mian, member panchayat samiti of Cooch Behar block 1, said: "There is great panic in Cooch Behar district that shares border with Assam, where the NRC left out about 19 lakh people. "People are rushing to get the corrections done and get whatever legacy documents they can have," he said.
Madhukar Adhikari, a resident of Matigara in Darjeeling district, said: "We have heard that ration cards can be a proof of citizenship in the NRC. So I have queued up for digital ration cards for my wife, myself and three kids."
Aurobindo Biswas, block development officer of Krishnagar in Nadia district, said they have received 1,734 applications since September 20, which used to be 25-30 every day before the ration card verification drive began. Nakashipara BDO in Nadia district is receiving about 3,500 applications every day, whereas it got about 30 earlier, another officer said on the condition of anonymity.
Sandip Ghosh, block development officer of Kaliachak in Malda district, said they have increased the number of counters in view of the rush. "There seems to be some misconception among the people regarding NRC. They are queuing up at the BDO offices," he said.
Agree with him, BDO of Chapra in Nadia district, Animesh Kanti Manna, said most people are misconstruing the drive for ration cards and voter data base work with the NRC. Malda district magistrate Kaushik Bhattacharya said they have pooled in additional personnel to providing all necessary help to the people.
BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh blamed the chief minister for creating panic over NRC for "political mileage". "She had made NRC an issue. She is leading rallies. Her party leaders are distributing leaflets. If anyone has really died due to it, she is responsible," Ghosh said.
Meanwhile, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said there is no reason to fear. "You are residents of this state and citizens of this country. NRC will not be allowed in West Bengal," she said
Apprehending a backlash, Ghosh has already said that the party would be campaigning on issue of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), first to provide citizenship to the Hindus and then go for NRC.
The BJP plans to reintroduce CAB, which proposes to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Parliament soon, as the earlier version of the legislation could not be passed in Rajya Sabha during the budget session.