No clarity on voter list in West Bengal

Durgapur: It was towards the fag-end of October when my fellow Bengalis, still in a trance from the Durga puja festivities, suddenly felt a bout of panic with the news that an ‘NRC-like’ exercise had begun in the state of West Bengal, despite assurance from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that no NRC-like exercise would be carried out in the state. Despite Ms Banerjee’s repeated assurances, the news spread like wildfire, especially fuelling outrage, fear and panic through the social media.

The Election Commission, in my home town of Durgapur, started distributing a form asking residents to fill up their voter card details, bringing the fire closer home for me. The interesting caveat to this annual voter list update ritual was that the head of family was also asked to provide his or her Aadhaar details, along with the form.

Having been aware of developments on this front and its fallout on different people in Assam, my elder sister, Sricheta Sengupta, called me up in panic to inform me about the latest development, asking me to come down home from Hyderabad, where I work as a journalist in the finance desk of Deccan Chronicle. On reaching my hometown, it stuck me that it had same vibe as from the days when I grew up there, yet it looked different. The air felt strange. The aura of National Registry of Citizens, with its strong tinge of gloom and despondency, and an added taste of fear, was palpable.

A developed city amongst the B-towns of India, with a working airport and a highly educated and aware populace; the city, named after mother Durga, the mighty, awe-inspiring goddess who slays demons, was in an undeniable grip of panic.

People, whom I have known for long, were queuing up, surprisingly, in front of cyber cafes, inexplicably, given the proliferation of dirt cheap 4G connections and budget smartphones.

The rationale soon hit hard — these cafes had put up signboards which read ominously, ‘update your voter card/NRC’ for Rs 50 only.

It was meant to attract residents who were not too technologically savvy, or not so literate to understand and handle the entire procedure on their own. But the panic fuelled most residents, not sure whom to trust, to rush to ensure their ID cards were error-free.

Technology access and education gave no confidence – the question facing each Indian there was – would I be able to prove my Indianness? And who could leave something to chance on that wager?

A childhood friend, Subhashis Dutta, who also had flown into the city after hearing about the update panic, said, “While it is understandable that the EC is proactively updating the voter list, rumour has gained sufficient grounds that this is NRC. The reasoning is that such matters like citizenship come under the purview of the Central government, not the state. So no reassurance from the CM is comforting. Yet, there is no clarity on the issue.” He further said that EC staff, who had handed the form to his father, had told him that he is “merely a government employee” and asked him to contact the SDO if he had any “further clarifications to seek.”

The same ‘I am a humble government employee, and helpless, and merely following orders’, speech was repeated to me too, when I had asked the same question, as I was recalcitrant to link my mother’s Aadhaar card to her voter ID card until the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the issue. Quite clearly, the lessons of Nuremberg not learnt. I was seething. I believe if such a government order came, it would be most likely challenged as soon as it would be officially announced. I learnt that the Aadhaar card, rumoured to be compulsory for verification, wasn’t even required.

Any government- issued address proof and a mobile number were enough for the exercise. Once I reached the Sub- Divisional Magistrate’s (SDO’s) office, I could recognise several panicstricken faces. They were there to make their IDs error-free. My purpose was different, which gave me courage, at least visible confidence. I asked why the EC had suddenly become proactive in updating the voters list and what was the need to link the voter card to Aadhaar. I argued that

Aadhaar was a proof of identity, not a proof of citizenship. My quest, however, proved to be futile. All my attempts to seek answers were stonewalled. It did little to instil confidence amongst the members of the crowd. Till then, I hadn’t mentioned my profession, of being a journalist, or my association with Deccan Chronicle. Open sesame. Immediately, doors started to open up. My questions were being answered in a polite manner. But the answers I received ranged from “I won’t be able to speak to the media” to “But, it is an order from the EC.”

However, no word was spoken when I mentioned the word NRC. A frozen silence was the only denial that this exercise was a precursor to it. They soon followed up with a question of their own. Why had the organisationsent an outstation reporter to do the story? After explaining my situation, I got a lesson from the officials at SDO’s office on how to get my work done. I was directed to a poster hanging outside, which illustrated the process of how to verify details on a voter card. From the details, I used a Voter Helpline app to complete the verification for my family and I. But my question on has the NRC’s shadow reached Bengal remain unanswered, the kind of shadow that ominous events looming ahead cast.

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