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Protests continue over controversial Indian citizenship law

Critics believe the new law will marginalise India’s Muslim population.

A woman shouts slogans from inside a bus after being detained during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Gauhati (AP)
A woman shouts slogans from inside a bus after being detained during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Gauhati (AP)

By Emily Schmall and Sheikh Saaliq

Indian student protests which turned into violent clashes with police have galvanised nationwide opposition to a new law that provides a path to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants who entered the country illegally.

Critics of the new law believe it will marginalise multicultural India’s 200 million-strong Muslim population, and turn the country into a distinctly Hindu state.

Police fired tear gas in the Muslim-majority Seelampur area of New Delhi to push back protesters who burned a police booth and two motorbikes after throwing stones and swarming barricades.

Protests against the law were also reported in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and elsewhere.

On Sunday, a march by students at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University descended into chaos when demonstrators set three buses on fire.

Police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Videos showed officers running after unarmed protesters and beating them with wooden sticks.

Also on Sunday, police stormed Aligarh Muslim University in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh firing tear gas and injuring five people who were participating in a student-led demonstration, university spokesman Rahat Abrar said.

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Indian students take part in a protest rally against a new citizenship law at Osmania University campus in Hyderabad (AP)

The police response to Sunday’s protests has drawn widespread condemnation.

It also has sparked a broader movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, with demonstrations erupting across the country.

The new law applies to Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally but can demonstrate religious persecution in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has described the law as a humanitarian gesture.

While the law was being debated in parliament last week, home minister Amit Shah said it was “not even .001% against minorities. It is against infiltrators”.

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Policemen chase protesters during a protest in the Seelampur area of New Delhi (AP)

Mr Modi told an election rally in eastern Jharkhand state on Tuesday that no Indian citizen would be affected by the law. Speaking about Sunday’s protests, he accused the opposition Congress party of using students for political purposes.

He said: “The decisions made by the government should be discussed and any voice should be raised in a democratic manner. This government understands your concerns but some people use your shoulder for firing a gun.

“I dare congress, its friends, to publicly declare they are prepared to accord Indian citizenship to all Pakistanis.”

Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi met President Ram Nath Kovind as the head of an opposition delegation and asked that the citizenship law be withdrawn.

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Protests were also reported in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and elsewhere (AP)

Talking to reporters, Ms Gandhi said she fears “the situation may spread further”.

“I think you all have seen that the Modi government seems to have no compassion when it comes to shutting down people’s voices and implementing legislation,” she said.

Critics of the government say the law is intended to help the ruling party transform a multicultural and secular India into a Hindu “rastra”, or distinctly Hindu state, and further marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims.

India is 80% Hindu and 14% Muslim, which means it has one of the largest Muslim populations of any country in the world.

Police spokesman MS Randhawa said 10 people were arrested during Sunday’s protest at Jamia Millia Islamia University from Jamia Nagar, a Muslim area near the university.

Students said police lobbed tear gas shells inside the campus, broke down the doors of the library and yanked students out to assault them. Dozens of students were taken to hospital for treatment.

Police have denied allegations of brutality and said they acted with restraint.

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A rally takes place in Gauhati (AP)

The citizenship law follows a contentious citizenship registry process in north-eastern India’s Assam state intended to weed out people who came to the country illegally.

Nearly two million people in Assam were excluded from the list, about half Hindu and half Muslim, and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be considered foreign.

India is constructing a detention centre for some of the tens of thousands of people the courts are expected to ultimately determine came to the country illegally.

Mr Shah has pledged to roll out the programme nationwide, promising to rid India of “infiltrators”.

The Citizenship Amendment Act could provide protection and a fast track to naturalisation for many of the Hindus left off Assam’s citizenship list, while explicitly leaving out Muslims.

The backlash to the law came as an unprecedented crackdown continued in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority area, which was stripped of special constitutional protections and its statehood in August. Since then, movement and communications have been restricted.

PA

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