Thousands of Indians ushered in the New Year by demonstrating against a citizenship law despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to dampen protests that have run for nearly three weeks.
The protests have rocked India since Dec 12, when the government passed legislation easing the way for non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship.
Combined with opposition to a proposed national register of citizens, many Indians fear the law will discriminate against minority Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Citizens’ Register (NRC) were part of the election manifesto of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party.
Protesters had planned at least three demonstrations in New Delhi, the capital, including the area of Shaheen Bagh, where hundreds of residents have blocked a major highway for 18 days.
Irshad Alam, a 25-year-old resident of Shaheen Bagh, stood with his one-year-old in his arm and his wife by his side. He said he’d been participating in the protest every day.
“It’s freezing here,” he said, “But we are still here because we care about this movement.”
More than 200 people gathered in and around a makeshift stage in the Muslim neighbourhood chanting slogans and reciting poetry.
Resident Maqsood Alam said protesters were not afraid of a police crackdown.
“We’ve been expecting that every day. But I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “This crowd here is not afraid of the government. They are ready to give their lives for this movement. We won’t leave here until the government takes back the law.”
Poetry recitals and speeches had been planned by organisers at a protest outside New Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, which was stormed by police this month.
“New Year’s resolution to defend the constitution,” read the schedule for another protest planned in New Delhi, now in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century.
Police said they had deployed additional forces in New Delhi on New Year’s Eve, with traffic curbs imposed in some parts of the capital.
“All precautionary measures are in place,” said police official Chinmoy Biswal, who oversees the southeastern part of the city that includes Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia University.
“Recently, there have been no incidents. So we hope things will remain fine,” he told Reuters.
In the southern city of Hyderabad, at least two small groups of demonstrators have been organising flash protests, to skirt police restrictions on larger gatherings.
Typically, half a dozen demonstrators pop up in public places, such as malls and coffee shops, holding up placards and encouraging passersby to join in, a member of one of the groups, which has held 11 protests, told Reuters.
But some protests have turned violent, particularly in the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and at least 25 people have been killed in clashes with police since early December.
Initially caught off guard by the scale of the protests, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scrambled to douse public anger, with Modi declaring that there had been no discussions on the NRC, contradicting party colleagues.
The BJP is running a campaign to say that the CAA is not discriminatory and is needed to help non-Muslim minorities persecuted in the three neighbouring countries.