India Protests Spread as Anger Against Citizenship Law Grows
A public bus set on fire by anti-Citizenship Act protestors at Mathura Road, in New Delhi, Sunday, 15 December, 2019. (Image: The Quint)

India Protests Spread as Anger Against Citizenship Law Grows

(Bloomberg) -- Tensions remained high across India Monday after five days of protests against a contentious new religion-based citizenship law turned violent in the capital New Delhi and other parts of the country, with police using tear gas to disperse crowds.

Anger against the law has fueled protests across Asia’s third-largest economy, from Assam, about 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) to the east of Delhi, to demonstrations in Bengaluru and the financial capital Mumbai. The agitation in Assam prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was scheduled to visit the state, to delay a three-day trip that was set to begin on Sunday.

India Protests Spread as Anger Against Citizenship Law Grows

Authorities shut down internet access in some districts in Assam -- which borders Bangladesh -- and Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal as protesters defied police to take to the streets against the Citizenship Amendment Law. Passed Wednesday, it bars undocumented Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from seeking citizenship but allows undocumented Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from these regions to do so.

The U.S. was closely following developments, a State Department spokesperson said before the bill became law, urging India to “protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s Constitution and democratic values,” while the United Nations described the legislation as “fundamentally discriminatory.”

The law was attracting criticisms outside India both due to its content, but also because it follows the government’s decision to abrogate Kashmir’s special autonomous status and a court decision over a site that’s sacred to both Hindus and Muslims, said Ian Hall, professor of international relations at the Griffith Asia Institute at the Queensland-based Griffith University. “Put together, this looks to many as a shift towards a far less liberal, Hindu majoritarian India in which Muslims are second class citizens,” Hall said by email Monday.

Citizenship Drive

The new law is seen as a precursor to Modi’s Hindu nationalist government plan to implement a citizenship drive nationwide to weed out undocumented migrants. Assam was the first state to implement the register. The process has put about 1.9 million people at risk of becoming stateless and raised concerns about the whittling away of values laid out in the secular constitution of the world’s second-most populous nation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the law at a campaign rally in Jharkhand state over the weekend and implied it was only Muslims who were behind the protests on campuses across several parts of India. “These people who are lighting these fires, the images of them that you see on TV. You can tell who these people setting fires are by their clothes,” Modi said referring to Muslim students in hijab and other Islamic clothing who were part of the protests.

On Monday Modi tweeted to ask for peace and unity. “I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India,” Modi added.

India’s Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear petitions filed on the violence that’s occurred during protests.

In Assam the demonstrations are fueled by the fears the new law would lead to an influx of immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, while in many other cities across India, demonstrations against the discriminatory nature of the laws brought thousands of people to the streets. On the front lines of most of the protests were university students of all faiths.

Internet access has also been cut off in the northern city of Aligarh, where police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters inside the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University. Protests have also taken place in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai and Lucknow. News reports said a curfew had been imposed in some parts of the northern Uttar Pradesh state, where both Aligarh and Lucknow are located.

Opposition Grows

Political leaders in the states of Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal all said publicly they will not implement the law, setting up a potential conflict with the federal government in New Delhi.

India Protests Spread as Anger Against Citizenship Law Grows

In the capital, Jamia Milia Islamia University saw the most protests followed by a security crackdown. As demonstrations continued well into the night Sunday, more than a dozen metro stations were shut down for several hours. Student leaders and demonstrators called for police restraint and for the new law -- which they say goes against India’s secular constitution -- to be overturned.

“We don’t want an India where our citizenship is decided on the basis of our religion,” said N Sai Balaji, national president of All India Students’ Association at the demonstration outside Delhi police headquarters. “We want an India where humanity will be the basis of our citizenship. This is Delhi. Imagine what’s happening in the remote corners of this country.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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