GUWAHATI: Protests against a divisive new citizenship law raged on Saturday as Washington and London issued travel warnings for northeast India following days of violent clashes that have killed two people so far.
Many in the far-flung, resource-rich northeast fear the new legislation will grant citizenship to large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, who they accuse of stealing jobs and diluting the region’s cultural identity.
Several thousand protesters rallied in the capital New Delhi on Saturday evening, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to revoke the law, with some holding signs reading: “Stop Dividing India”.
“People are not gathered here as Hindus, or Muslims; people are gathered here as citizens of India. We reject this bill that has been brought by the Modi government and we want equal treatment as is enshrined in our constitution,” said protester Amit Baruah, 55, a journalist.
Protests turned violent in West Bengal state, a hotbed of political unrest, with at least 20 buses and parts of two railway stations set on fire as demonstrators blocked roads and set fire to tyres. No injuries were reported.
Tensions also simmered in Guwahati in Assam state, the epicentre of the unrest, where medical staff said two people were shot dead and 26 hospitalised late on Thursday after security forces fired live rounds.
Friday’s funeral of 18-year-old Sam Stafford, who was killed in the firing, was attended by hundreds of angry and distraught mourners who shouted, “long live Assam”.
Anticipating further unrest, authorities extended an internet ban across Assam till Monday. Most shops were shut and anxious residents stocked up supplies on Saturday when the curfew was relaxed during the day.
The Citizenship Amendment Act allows for the fast-tracking of applications from religious minorities, including Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims.
Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe postponed a summit that was reportedly due to be held in Guwahati from Sunday, and the United States and Britain warned their nationals to “exercise caution” if travelling to the wider northeast region.
Muslim groups, the opposition and rights organisations say the law is a part of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims. He denies this.
Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2019