NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court turned down a plea on Wednesday to stop the implementation of a new citizenship law based on religion that has set off violent protests in the country, but said it would hold hearings next month on the sweeping measure.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) makes it easier for non-Muslims from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who settled in India prior to 2015 to gain Indian citizenship.

Thousands of people have protested, saying the law is anti-Muslim and the latest in a series of measures by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government to marginalise the community.

“We want a stay order in the CAA case,” said Kapil Sibal, a lawyer for petitioners who challenged the law in court, adding it was in conflict with parts of the Indian constitution guaranteeing equality to all.

Supreme Court Chief Justice S. A. Bobde refused requests to hold off the implementation of the law, which came into effect last week. The court will however hear petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law on Jan 22.

Modi’s government says the law was intended to address the persecution of minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Those groups, many of whom have been languishing in India for years without rights, will now get an automatic path to Indian nationality if they came from these three countries before 2015.

But protesters say the exclusion of Muslims shows a deep-seated bias against the community, which makes up 14 percent of India’s population, the third largest Muslim population in the world.

The new measure follows the revocation of the special status of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, and a court ruling clearing the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque razed by Hindu zealots.

Fresh protests broke out across India on Wednesday as authorities banned large gatherings in parts of the capital in an effort to contain nationwide rallies and riots against a citizenship law seen as discriminating against Muslims.

In the financial capital Mumbai, hundreds of people under tight security carried placards with the words “India is ours” and chanted “we are all one”.

“We just cannot go along with this bill. I can’t believe we now have to prove our citizenship after living in India for so many years,” Tabeer Rizvi said as the Mumbai crowd burst into a Hindi version of the US civil rights movement anthem “We shall overcome”.

“I am not surprised to see people of all religions come out to protest this bill.”

“We are really very angry with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government... They have taken racism to the extreme point,” Taiba Hadis, 18, said.

“They are questioning our existence and it is high time for us to speak up.” Rallies were also held in other states including West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana. There were sporadic clashes between police and demonstrators in some cities as well as small counter-protests.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2019

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