Panic over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) seems to be spreading across West Bengal, with three or four recent suicides in the state's northern region being attributed to this factor by victims' families.
The panic has now reached Kolkata. The birth and death certificate issuing office at the city's Municipal Corporation is full of anxious people trying to procure new documents or get errors in old ones corrected as Mamata Banerjee and the BJP cross swords over the NRC in West Bengal.
Munshi Musaraff Hossain and his wife Reshma Begum travelled 200 km from Salar in Murshidabad district to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to secure birth certificates for their two college-going children. Born in a government hospital in Kolkata, both were using hospital discharge certificates as date-of-birth proof until now. But no more, not with the NRC hanging over their heads like a sword.
"We have come for birth certificates for our children out of fear of NRC. I fear that they will chase us out of the country if an NRC were to happen," said Reshma Begum. Her husband, Hossain, was just as perturbed. "The politicians are playing games with us. Mamata Banerjee is saying no NRC but if the Supreme Court orders it, we will have to show papers. So we must have everything ready," he said.
There were many others in the same boat. Mehar Ali, a college student in Kolkata, was waiting to get the spelling of his father's name corrected on his birth certificate. Sabahat Parveen, a young mother of two young children, had queued up at the office from 3 am for an early shot at getting new birth certificates for her two young children. Last night, with NRC fears in the air, she checked for their certificates, couldn't find them and decided against taking a chance.
"I have come for my children. The government has said that we may have to leave the country or be locked up in some camps if we don't have papers. I want to save my children from this," Ms Parveen said.
Mehar Ali claimed that it would be unwise to take a chance even if the NRC is yet to be announced for Bengal. "We should keep our papers ready. You never know what can happen when. No one can say. Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs, everybody is panicking," he said.
Some reports attribute over six suicides to NRC-related fear in north Bengal over the previous week. The verbal duels between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP on the issue have been relentless, and Amit Shah is set to join the debate at a public meeting in the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Kolkata on October 1.
"Some people are fearmongering, saying you will need to have a 1971 certificate to figure on the NRC list. There will be no NRC. Don't worry about any NRC," Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said at a meeting in West Midnapore district. But less than 24 hours later, BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya said: "Hundred per cent there will be NRC in Bengal. Once the BJP comes to power here, infiltrators will not be allowed to remain in the country. But yes, Hindus will stay. The Citizenship Amendment Bill is coming soon."
While some officials at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation said that the size of the crowds was normal, others claimed otherwise. "There is no reason for such big crowds in the office, given that this is not the season for school admissions. In my entire career, I have not seen such huge crowds applying for birth certificates at the same time... People are talking about NRC. It is overwhelming, and we are working non-stop," said Swapan Ghosh, who was sitting behind a counter issuing birth certificates.
While some people have run out of breath over NRC fears, others are holding theirs in case it does come to town.
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