Protests erupt across India over citizenship law

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Student protesters near Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi over new citizenship law
Student protesters near Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi over new citizenship law

Protests over a controversial new law on migrants have raged across several Indian cities, prompting police to clash with demonstrators.

The new law entitles non-Muslim migrants from three Muslim-majority countries to citizenship if they are facing religious persecution.

Police used tear gas and detained protesters in the capital Delhi as buses were torched and roads blocked.

Protests have raged across northern and eastern India since the law was passed.

Some critics say the law is anti-Muslim, while others – especially in border regions – fear large-scale migration.

Six people have been killed in the five days of unrest.

Over the weekend, demonstrators in West Bengal blocked key national highways while in Assam, the state government briefly lifted a curfew to allow people to buy essential goods.

The UK, US and Canada have issued travel warnings for people visiting India’s north-east, telling their citizens to “exercise caution” if travelling to the region.

What happened in Delhi?

Students of the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia university held a protest march which ended in clashes with the police on Sunday.

It is still unclear who started the violence but stones were thrown at the police who retaliated with tear gas.

Local media reported that nearly 60 people, including students and police, were injured. At least three buses and several motorcycles were set on fire.

Students distanced themselves from the violence and some police officers privately admitted that local troublemakers were behind the trouble, the BBC’s Kinjal Pandya reported.

Demonstrators during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), near Jamia Millia Islamia on December 15, 2019 in New Delhi, India
Student protesters near Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi

The university said police later entered the campus without permission and video footage showed police assaulting students and staff.

Police said they did what was necessary to stop the protests.

Some schools in southern Delhi have been asked to remain closed on Monday.

Hundreds of people also protested in other parts of the city, including in Jawaharlal Nehru University and outside the city’s police headquarters.

What has the reaction been in other Indian cities?

Many students across Indian cities came out in support of those protesting in Jamia Millia Islamia on Sunday.

In the northern city of Aligarh, hundreds of students of Aligarh Muslim University clashed with police, prompting the university to close down the campus until 5 January.

Demonstrators during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), near Jamia Millia Islamia on December 15, 2019 in New Delhi, India
Police say they did what was necessary to stop the protests in Delhi

A large protest also broke out in the southern city of Hyderabad, as students of Maulana Azad Urdu University carried slogans against the police action in Delhi.

In India’s financial capital, Mumbai, students of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences held a candlelit march.

Students in other cities like Varanasi and Kolkata also held marches in solidarity throughout Sunday.

Why is the law so divisive?

The law allows non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who entered India illegally, to become citizens.

The Hindu-nationalist BJP government argues that the law aims to accommodate those who have fled religious persecution.

Critics say the law is part of the government’s agenda to marginalise Muslims, and that it violates secular principles enshrined in the constitution.

Earlier this week the United Nations Human Rights office voiced concern that the new law was fundamentally discriminatory in nature.

The government denies any religious bias and says Muslims are not covered by the new law because they are not religious minorities, and therefore do not need India’s protection.

Meanwhile, people in Assam fear that they will be “overrun” by illegal non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

They argue that outsiders will take over their land and jobs – eventually dominating their culture and identity.

The protests in Assam have little to do with concerns about the exclusionary nature of the law and the threat to secularism.

They have more to do with indigenous fears about being demographically and culturally swamped by “outsiders”.

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