NEW DELHI: Sabina Bibi and her three-year-old daughter queued for more than 12 hours without food just to get a spelling corrected in her ration card.
The 33-year-old daily wage worker joined hundreds of men and women with similar concerns standing in line outside the government Block Development Office in Basudevpur, in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal.
For Muslims in the eastern Indian state, which borders Bangladesh, these are nervy times.
Panic has swept through the Muslim community, which makes up 34 percent of the West Bengal population, following last month’s announcement by the Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be implemented throughout the country. The NRC is designed to identify genuine citizens of India while declaring anyone without valid papers as stateless.
In the northeastern state of Assam, where the checks were recently applied, more than 1.9 million people of all faiths were branded stateless because their names did not appear on the official citizenship list. Half of them were thought to be Hindus.
However, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has assured Hindus and other non-Muslim communities that they will be given citizenship status following proposed changes to the country’s Citizenship Act 1955.
The BJP government plans to introduce a citizenship amendment bill in the next session of Parliament to allow for stateless Hindus to be declared Indian citizens, but no such reassurance has been made to the millions of Muslims living in the country.
And fears are particularly heightened in West Bengal which the BJP is hoping to capture in the next assembly elections. Muslims there are worried that by introducing the NRC, the BJP might try to disenfranchise the sizable Muslim population.
“Ever since the BJP said it was going to introduce the NRC in West Bengal, Muslims in the state have been living in fear. They don’t want to take any chances,” said Bibi.
“My husband, who works as a construction worker in Kerala (a state on India’s southern Malabar Coast), told me that I should get the names in our ration cards corrected. It’s a question of our existence and I did not mind standing in the queue to get my name and my husband’s corrected,” she told Arab News.
Saira Bano, 21, from Sherganj village also in the Murshidabad district, spent more than 10 hours waiting to get her 65-year-old father’s misspelt name corrected in his ration card, an important government document.
“It’s not a normal time now. We cannot afford to ignore even a silly mistake in the official document. Our identity is in question. We have a government in Delhi which looks at India from the prism of Hindu and Muslims, and Muslims are treated as others,” she said.
In the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal there have been reports of suicides over the NRC threat. Prof. Abdul Matin of Jadavpur University, who runs an NGO in the district, said at least 16 people had died in the last month in NRC-related cases.
“Three people committed suicide because of the tension, at least four people died due to heat exposure while standing outside government offices, and three people suffered a heart attack because they could not sort out their documents,” added Matin.
Subrata Chakraborty, a journalist based in the Murshidabad district, said: “Life in rural Bengal has come to a standstill with people preoccupied in procuring papers and streamlining their official documents.
“Hardly any economic activity is taking place in the area. Shops in rural areas are closed. It’s an unprecedented situation. Muslims are more worried after minister Shah’s statement on Tuesday in Kolkata where he openly assured Hindus that the government would take care of them.”
BJP spokesperson in West Bengal, Sayantan Basu, said: “The BJP is going to bring NRC not only in West Bengal but all over India. But the NRC will only be introduced in West Bengal after the passage of the citizenship amendment bill in Parliament.
“Through this amendment we want to ensure citizenship to prosecuted Hindu and other minorities who have come from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he told Arab News.
“Muslims who are genuine citizens of India do not need to panic. No country would like to give shelter to illegal immigrants. Would you expect the US to give you citizenship if you enter the country illegally?”
Matin said: “There is a deep sense of panic in all the Muslim-dominated districts of Bengal. The fear is all the more pronounced after Shah’s open declaration that Muslims would not be included in the citizenship amendment bill.
“Muslims are worried from where they will get their legacy certificate. People are not so particular about maintaining documents. They think that the way people in Assam had to present their forefather’s data will be the same in Bengal.
“Rabble-rousing speeches by BJP leaders are further pushing the minority community into panic mode. Muslims feel they are unwanted in BJP’s India,” the political scientist added.