Every day for the past four years, 27-year-old Ismail Sheikh has spent his mornings at a street corner in Mumbai’s Khar neighbourhood, waiting with hundreds of other workers for contractors to offer him daily wage jobs in construction. This has helped Sheikh sustain a five-member family back in his village of Sandeshpur in West Bengal’s Malda district. But over the past four or five months, times have been tough.
“I barely get 10 or 12 days of work a month, and the contractors don’t even pay the full wage that they promise,” said Sheikh. “Things got bad after demonetisation [in 2016], but they are only getting worse now.”
As if his financial worries were not enough, Sheikh now has to contend with a new source of stress: his family’s future as citizens of India. “I have been hearing on the news and on Whatsapp that the government is going to make a list of all Indian citizens, and those who don’t have the right papers will be thrown out,” said Sheikh, referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s plan to draw up a National Register of Citizens, or NRC.
“My family has been living in Malda for many generations, but we only have one document from 1972 to show that my grandfather lived there,” said Sheikh. “We are not sure if this document will be valid, so my family has been quite anxious for a few weeks.”
Several times in recent months, BJP president Amit Shah has declared the central government’s intention to implement an NRC across India to identify “infiltrators” or illegal immigrants. In September, an NRC was published in Assam. The exercise was undertaken in the North Eastern state in keeping with the provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, an agreement that was the consequence of a lengthy agitation claiming that large numbers of Bangladeshis were living in the state illegally.
When Assam’s final citizens’ database was released on September 14, more than 19 lakh people were left out of it – 6% of the state’s entire population. Contrary to the expectations of the BJP, a large number of Hindus did not make it to the list. The exercise has caused mayhem in Assam, which Scroll.in has reported in detail in its series, The Final Count.
But instead of dumping the idea of a nation-wide NRC, the BJP government wants to implement it after passing a Citizenship Amendment Bill. On October 1, speaking in his capacity as India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah declared that the Bill would assure citizenship to “Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees”. By blatantly omitting the word “Muslim”, Shah made it clear that his NRC plan is meant to paint all Muslims as infiltrators – a position that is both bigoted and unconstitutional.
While West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that she would not allow NRC to be implemented in her state, constant talk about NRC in the news and on social media has generated panic among thousands of people in West Bengal and other states.
To assess how aware ordinary Indians are about the implications of an NRC, Scroll.in reporters spoke to dozens of daily wage workers at labour nakas in Delhi and Mumbai. We found that most Hindu labourers have either not heard about a National Register of Citizens, or are not worried about it. Almost all Muslim workers, however, are not only extremely aware of the government’s NRC plans but have also been anxious about it for at least a month.
All of this has come in the midst of an economic downturn that has made daily survival difficult for all workers and their families.
Lost in the floods
At a labour naka near South Delhi’s Okhla Vihar metro station, migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal assemble at 8 am every day, waiting for work with their paint brushes, buckets and other pieces of equipment. One recent morning, at least six workers from the Muslim community said they had heard of the possibility of a nation-wide NRC exercise from gatherings at mosques, Whatsapp forwards, news channels and YouTube videos, among other sources.
Among them was 36-year-old Mojiullah Khan from Motihari, Bihar, who returned to Delhi at the end of September after spending a devastating month in his village. The recent floods in Bihar destroyed many homes, and in the midst of the chaos, his wife gave birth to a stillborn child. “I had to row a boat across the river when it was flooded. I could not get her to the hospital on time,” Khan said.
Khan has been aware of the impact of the NRC in Assam because his sister and brother-in-law travelled from Assam to Bihar to ask him for land papers. “Their names came on the list but they left their children with us till they could sort out their documents,” he said.
Another worker, 37-year-old Rejamur, came to Delhi 10 years ago from Araria district in Bihar, leaving behind his wife and three children. With work hard to come by, Rejamur has been unable to earn money in August and September, forcing him to skimp on meals. “I just eat rotis with salt twice a day,” he said. He is yet to pay his monthly rent of Rs 3,000.
The prospect of putting together paperwork if an NRC takes place has been adding to his worries, particularly after the Bihar floods endangered the lives of his family and damaged his house. “Will I save my life or will I run after these papers?” asked Rejamur, who was in his village when the floods occurred and pointed to his torso to indicate the height of the water. “From where will I get my grandfather’s documents? We have been in Bihar for 100 years.”
At Mumbai’s Khar labour naka, construction worker Shamiul Momin echoed the same concerns. “My hometown in Malda suffers from bad floods every year. My parents lost all their identity documents in the floods of 1998,” said Momin, who was born a year after that and is unsure whether to be relieved that his family members now have Aadhaar cards and a ration card. “I feel angry about having to prove my citizenship. Why would the government give us a ration card and Aadhaar card if we were not citizens?”
While some Muslim workers in Mumbai and Delhi felt that the government’s NRC plan is meant to target Muslims, several others claimed that it has been stressful for members of all communities in their villages.
Most Hindu workers Scroll.in spoke to, however, had never heard of an exercise to differentiate citizens from non-citizens.
“It makes no difference to us,” said Kuldev Das, a worker from Bhagalpur, Bihar, who seeks jobs at a West Delhi labour naka. Das had not heard of the NRC exercise. “I do not listen to the news. I just know that we should keep our Aadhaar card with us wherever we go.”
Some had heard of the government’s plan to weed out ghuspetiyas or illegal immigrants, but were unfamiliar with the term “NRC”. Among Hindus, it appeared that members of Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribe communities are more concerned about the prospect of NRC than upper-caste people.
“I know there is going to be a list to check if you are Indian or not, and I don’t think it should be implemented,” said Chandrashekhar Nishad from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, who has been getting painting jobs at Mumbai’s Tardeo labour naka for the past 26 years.
Nishad comes from the lower-caste Machhimar community and struggled to get a law degree from Gorakhpur University in his 20s. When he failed to get any work as a lawyer, he was forced to take up labour work in Mumbai. “Unlike me, most lower caste people in my state do not have much education and few have documents to prove their citizenship,” said Nishad. “I believe they will suffer the consequences of an NRC even more than Muslims.”
At the Khar naka, Rajasthani labourer Kailash Prajapati said he had heard of a government plan to “kick out Bangladeshis”, but he has not been worried about it after doing a quick check of his family’s documents. “But I know that Adivasis in my village are a lot more worried because they don’t know if they have the right papers,” said Prajapati, who hails from Sikar district.
Prajapati’s biggest worries in recent years have been a significant drop in his income, because of lack of work after demonetisation, as well as the absence of a hospital or primary health centre near his village. Two years ago, his eight-year-old son died of an unknown infection on the way to the nearest hospital, which is 10 km away.
“People are losing their children, but instead of focusing on building more hospitals, the government is wasting time making these lists of who is a citizen and who is not,” said Prajapati. “On my Facebook and YouTube, I have begged the government to do its real work, but no one listens.”
An array of rumours
Shamiul Momin and Ismail Sheikh are among dozens of labourers from Malda in West Bengal who live in cramped rooms in Mumbai’s Kherwadi slum for most of the year. They have been hearing a mixture of news and rumours about the NRC not just from the media and social media, but also from worried discussions among Bengali and Bihari workers in the slum.
Dulal Momin, for instance, has heard stories of families in Assam that were broken apart because only some members made it to the NRC list. “This is scary,” said Dulal Momin, 38, a landless Muslim from Malda who works as a painter in Mumbai. “My family has been gathering our papers, but what if something like this happened to us?”
“I heard that the President’s own grandson was not in the NRC list, so who are we in comparison?” said Raju SK, another worker from Malda who does tiling work. The rumour that Raju was referring to is technically incorrect but not too far from the truth: several members of former Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s family have indeed not made it to Assam’s NRC list.
Amfarul, a 26-year-old painter from Malda, has heard that people whose names have been left out of Assam’s NRC will eventually be “shot dead”. “I don’t know if it is true, but I think the government should just give those people citizenship,” said Amfarul, who only goes by his first name. “If they really came illegally from Bangladesh or Pakistan, how did they manage to escape all the security? How come they were not sent back at the border itself?”
‘Can Modi give proof?’
Like Amfarul, workers in Delhi’s labour nakas also have a long list of questions for the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mohammed Kalim, a 55-year-old from Bihar’s Supaul district, first heard about NRC through word of mouth when he moved to Delhi two months ago. “I heard that whoever does not have their identity papers will be kicked out of the country,” he said. “How will the government know who lives where?”
Kalim feels it is impossible for him to dig out documents belonging to his father and grandfather. “Most people in Bihar have no land or papers,” he said. “Can Modi give proof from his grandfather’s time?”
Rejamur said that 90% of Indians are unlikely to possess the documents required to prove citizenship under NRC. “This is wrong,” he said. “When Lalu [Former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav] was there then they never asked us for these things.”
Several workers have also heard Amit Shah’s comments vowing that through the NRC process, all illegal immigrants will be “thrown out of the country”. “Agar sab ko bhaga diya toh phir vote kaun dega,” Rejamur said. If they kick everyone out then from where will they get votes?
Israil Khan, a 45-year-old from Malda who works in Delhi, is now preparing to make Aadhaar cards for his children and is worried about the fate of those who are not recognised as Indian citizens. “Where will the public go?” said Khan. “There is no point of this. Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh will take them. They should just line them up and shoot them. The matter will be finished.”
Like Khan, Bengali workers in Mumbai have heard Mamata Banerjee’s speeches declaring that there would be no NRC in West Bengal under her party’s watch. Amit Shah has countered her declarations and asserted that the central government will implement NRC in West Bengal as well as the rest of the country. This has been confusing for many workers.
“I feel scared when I listen to Modi and reassured when I listen to Mamata didi,” said Shamiul Momin. “We are stuck in between the two claims.”