Internet Sathi worker Saini Sultana at her house in Kanachi, Birbhum. (Expressphoto by Partha Paul)
THE NPR-NRC panic has had its first casualty on the ground in West Bengal with Google stopping its Internet Saathi programme in the state. This followed a series of incidents since January 10 with villagers ransacking and even burning houses of families of young women, believing rumours that they were collecting information for the NRC (National Register of Citizens).
These young women were Internet Saathis, drawing monthly income of about Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500, and part of a nation-wide initiative launched in June 2015 by Google in partnership with Tata Trusts. The programme aims to empower women in rural India by teaching them how to use Internet in their daily lives. Google claims it has benefited over 30 million women across 20 states so far.
In Kanachi village in Birbhum district, about 230 km from Kolkata, a mob of over 600 raided the house of Saini Sultana, 26, an Internet Saathi, who works for the Foundation for Rural Entrepreneurship Development, an NGO which is implementing the programme. Fear writ over her face, Sultana told The Indian Express, “Last Wednesday, some villagers confronted my father and asked him why I sought names of women in the village and took their photographs. My father explained to them what I do and they relented. Later in the evening, hundreds of people attacked our house. We kept our main door locked. The mob pelted stones and bricks inside. We were all terrified.”
Rumours fuelling attacks
After the Assam NRC last April, fear and panic have spread in interior parts of West Bengal, where a number of instances have been reported of villagers targeting homes and families of young women, who have been spreading Internet awareness among rural women. More so, because the workers have been collecting names and photographs of beneficiaries.
About 10 kms away, at Amba village under Margram police station, Rimpa Khatun, 18, also an Internet Saathi, is scared to talk with media persons. Roushanara Begum, her mother, would not allow anyone inside the house. “She is scared and in no condition to speak with you. After what happened, we are not allowing anyone inside. The police and local administration came after the incident and somehow managed to talk and drive people away those who attacked our house,” she said.
When contacted, a Google spokesperson said, “We along with Tata Trusts are in constant touch with our on-ground partners to provide any support needed to ensure the safety of Internet Saathis. As an immediate step, we have stopped the program (in West Bengal) and will continue to coordinate with local administration to dispel the rumours."
Rimpa’s grandfather Sahidul Alam said a house was set afire in the intervening night of January 21-22 in Gourbazar village, about 16 km from Amba, following similar rumours.
“The next day, January 22, a mob of villagers came to our house and gheraoed it. They pelted stones and said my grand-daughter is surveying for NRC. Rimpa just taught other women how to use internet. But we had to call the police. Had the police arrived a bit late, it would have been disastrous,” Sahidul Alam said.
The villagers no longer speak to the family. “There is so much panic and fear here about everything,” he said. Rimpa’s family farms on four bighas and deals in cattle business.
More than half-a-dozen incidents have been reported so far, but the police has registered a First Information Report only in the Gourbazar village case when a mob ransacked the house of Chumki Khatun, 20, another Internet Saathi, on January 21, and later in the night set it ablaze. The village comes under the Mollarpur police station area.
According to neighbours, a mob gheraoed the house alleging she was working for NRC. Later when police personnel from Mollarpur reached the spot, the mob detained them too. While the police rescued the family, the mob ransacked and torched the house in the wee hours of January 22. Chumki and her father Habibul Sheikh, a local farmer, spent a couple of days in the Mollarpur police station and left the village with some relatives, they said.
The Indian Express could not contact the family.
“We filed an FIR and arrested nine people. The investigation is on,” said Shyam Singh, Superintendent of Police, Birbhum. Block Development Officer of Mayureshwar 1 said fear still prevailed in some parts. “Both police and administration are on high alert to prevent such incidents from recurring,” he said.
When contacted, Moumita Godara, District Magistrate, Birbhum said, instructions have been given to Block Development Officers to hold awareness campaigns in the affected areas. “Besides distributing leaflets, and using loudspeakers to spread the message, the administration has held meetings with village elders,” she said.
But for the Internet Saathis, life is not normal yet. “We are all in fear. I and my family cannot leave the house since January 22, the date of the incident. Only my father steps out occasionally to get daily necessities,” said Sultana Saini, who has cleared her higher secondary school, and was an Internet Saathi for four months last year. She is currently pursuing a course in computers. Her father Md Allauddin, who supplies meals to a local hospital, said villagers do not talk to them now. “Some threaten us. When people attacked our house, some local panchayat members and the police helped us,” he said.
Under the Internet Saathi programme in Birbhum, the young women are given two cell phones and required to teach village women how to use internet through cell phones. “It started in July and ended in October. I taught 600 women in neighbouring villages including Haturia, Bilaspur and Malanchi, apart from my own. We asked the women to furnish little details like their names, addresses, whether they know how to use internet, whether they know whatsapp or how to save image or how to send emails. We were also told to take a picture of them. It had nothing to do with NRC. But villagers did not understand that,” said Saini.
A farmer from Kanachi, Shahjahan Sheikh, said after the NRC in Assam, people here are panic-struck and fearful. “After CAA, things have turned worse. I went to the panchayat office for getting my birth certificate and rectifying records. I had a spelling mistake in my voter card and Aadhaar card. I have been doing rounds of the panchayat and BDO offices. But it is yet to be rectified. I was not part of the mob, but such things happen when people are scared,” said Sheikh, who is a farmer.
According to villagers in Birbhum, the first incident took place in Nalhati on January 10 and then spread to different areas of the district. More than half-a-dozen such incidents have been reported since then in various villages Mayureshwar, Mollarpur and Margram.
BJP leaders pointed to public meetings held by TMC district functionaries asking people to drive away government officers if they came for any survey. They said TMC Birbhum President Anubarat Mondol had asked people to take up lathis and stones and not to co-operate with anyone who visited for surveys.
When contacted, Trinamool Congress labeled the incidents as ‘misunderstanding’ in villages. “These are internal matters of villages. There has been some misunderstanding among the people. The administration has taken steps and soon normalcy will return. People are living in fear because of what the BJP-led Central government is doing,” said Abhijit Singha, Trinamool Congress district Vice President.