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'Is it our fault...': NRC fears rife in Muslim village on Bengal-Bangladesh border


KOLKATA: Standing on the edge of his farmland, 67-year-old Rijawul Mandal pulls out his government papers to point out discrepancies. "Is it our fault if the government can't even spell my name correctly on official documents? Now with this, they will hound us during NRC," he rues. 

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is now a regular topic of discussion for the people of Bhira, a village that lies approximately three kilometers within the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh. 

At first glance, the village is nondescript. But the inhabitants make it unique. They are all Muslims. And worried. Very worried.

The Modi government's plans to introduce a pan-India NRC has brought palpable anxiety to this village in the North 24 Parganas.

"There are 400 households here. None of us are from Bangladesh. Our forefathers were born here. During partition, our fathers refused to move to the other side of Bengal. The government is trying to throw out Muslims from the country, but we won't let that happen. Pran diye debo kintu amader desh amra charbo na (We will sacrifice ourselves but we won't leave our motherland)," Mandal asserts.

Fanning the villagers' anxiety has been the Rs 1220-crore NRC exercise in neighbouring Assam, where over 19 lakh people were excluded from the list published on August 31. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have claimed the government won't expand this exercise and conduct a pan-India NRC. But Home Minister Amit Shah reiterating in both the Houses of Parliament and during rallies that 'no force can stop the NRC from being implemented' is stoking the fears of the villagers in Bhira.  

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They express their anguish that the Citizenship Act fast-tracks citizenship for Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

"Why is the government targeting Muslims?" asks Salim Rahman, a farmer. "Most of us are poor farmers. How can we show birth certificates when there was no concept of such documents in villages when we were born fifty years ago. Most of the migrants in Bongaon (their constituency) are Hindus, yet they will target us, who have never been to the other side (Bangladesh)," he says.

Although Bengal and Bangladesh share a 4096-km porous border spread over nine districts, there seems to be no official data on the number of Muslim (legal or illegal) migrants who have crossed the border in search of greener pastures. What is known is that the Muslim population of Bengal has risen from 18.6 percent in 1951 to 23 percent in 2011, taking the count of the state's Muslims to over 2 crores. 

The village shifted its loyalty to Trinamool (TMC) after it came to power in 2011 and has now placed its faith in Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, who has taken the fight against the Citizenship law on to the streets. 

"Didi has been fighting against the NRC and the CAA for poor people like us and we are right behind her. She will make sure no harm befalls us," says Samir Mandal. 

While the fear of NRC looms over everyone in the village, it's the women who fret the most about a possible loss of citizenship.  

"I have heard we need land papers and birth certificates, where will we procure them from? Many married women have been left out of NRC in Assam," says Ruksana Begum. 

Her concern when it comes to land papers is genuine. Most of these women will fail to produce them since the patriarchal society they live in bars them from coming into a property of their own.

Twenty-two-year-old Asifa, on the eve of her marriage, shares a different worry. "I am now Khatoon but after marriage, I will change my name to Asifa Begum. There will be discrepancies. Will they also throw me into a detention camp?" she asks.

A brief pause hangs in the air before an ember of defiance lights up in her. “I was born in this village. Is this not proof enough for me to live in my country?” 

The words are defiant, but her eyes - Asifa’s worried eyes - betray the emotions that have welled up within her...