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8 Die in Protests Against Citizenship Law Across India

Indians throw stones on police vehicles during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens in Ahmadabad, India, Dec. 19, 2019.
Indians throw stones on police vehicles during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens in Ahmadabad, India, Dec. 19, 2019.

Police banned public gatherings in parts of New Delhi and other cities for a third day Friday and cut internet services to try to stop growing protests that have so far left eight people dead and more than 1,200 others detained.

The protests have targeted a new citizenship law that opponents say threatens the secular nature of Indian democracy in favor of a Hindu state.

Demonstrations are planned around India as opposition to a new law that provides a path to citizenship has quickly expanded from predominantly Muslim universities and communities to a much wider section of the Indian public.

While some see the law as a slight against Muslims, others, including Hindu conservatives in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party, fear it will encourage immigration to India, where public services for its 1.3 billion people are already highly strained.

“In effect, some of the BJP’s own rank and file, the very people the party has sought to help, have come out against the law,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center.

Kugelman said that the government’s failure to respond to the protests, except to accuse political opponents of orchestrating them, is “likely to galvanize the protesters even more.”

A law banning the assembly of more than four people was imposed for a third day in parts of the Indian capital as well as in several cities in northeastern Assam state and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a motorized rickshaw driver was killed during a protest in the capital Lucknow.

A total of eight deaths have been reported so far, including five in Assam and two in southern Karnataka state.

Authorities erected roadblocks and turned areas around mosques in New Delhi, Lucknow and other Muslim-dominated areas into security fortresses to prevent widespread demonstrations after Friday prayers.

Police temporarily held 1,200 protesters in New Delhi alone on Thursday and hundreds of others were detained in other cities after they defied bans on assembly. Most protesters were released later in the day.

On Friday, New Delhi police rejected a permit application for a group representing Dalits, the lowest rung in in India’s caste hierarchy, to march from a mosque in Old Delhi to an 18th-century observatory where protesters have met every day since the law’s passage last week near India’s Parliament. Agitating students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islami were also expected to protest.

The legislation has sparked anger at what many see as the government’s push to bring India closer to a Hindu state. Critics say it’s the latest effort by Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government to marginalize India’s 200 million Muslims, and a violation of the country’s secular constitution.

Modi has defended it as a humanitarian gesture.

The protests come amid an ongoing crackdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region stripped of its semi-autonomous status and demoted from a state into a federal territory last summer. They also follow a contentious process in Assam meant to weed out foreigners in the country illegally. Nearly 2 million people were excluded from an official list of citizens, about half Hindu and half Muslim, and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be considered foreign.

India is also building a detention center for some of the tens of thousands of people the courts are expected to ultimately determine have entered illegally. Modi’s interior minister, Amit Shah, has pledged to roll out the process nationwide.

Critics say the process is a thinly veiled plot to deport millions of Muslims.

The Modi government, which won a landslide reelection in May, had been able to push through those parts of its agenda without much opposition.