Police beat protesters during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Lucknow on Thursday. Picture: STR/AFP
Police beat protesters during a demonstration against India's new citizenship law in Lucknow on Thursday. Picture: STR/AFP

New Delhi/Mumbai — India’s government doubled down on efforts to stem growing nationwide anger against a new religion-based citizenship law with continued curfew-like curbs in many areas and wider mobile internet shutdowns.

Political groups aligned with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party have called for counterprotests on Friday, in favour of the controversial law, a day after thousands defied the ban on public demonstrations and risked arrest to protest against the new law. A powerful state leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also called for confiscating protesters’ properties in areas where violence had occurred.

At least three protesters died after police opened fire across two BJP-ruled states and more than 1,200 people including opposition leaders were detained in the capital New Delhi, Press Trust of India reported. Home affairs minister Amit Shah called for a meeting on Thursday evening to review the security situation, the report said.

Protests are expected to continue on Friday despite restrictions imposed in parts of the capital, the tech hub Bengaluru and in the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, which with a population of around 200-million is about the size of Brazil.

Markets shrugged off the demonstrations, with stocks headed for yet another record close on Friday, while the Indian rupee was little changed. Sovereign Indian bonds rallied after the central bank announced buying longer bonds and selling shorter-maturity notes.

Social division

“The fear is that the twin moves of the citizenship act and the NRC [National Register of Citizens] could foster more social division and alienation from a common ‘Indian’ identity,” said Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I am sceptical that the protests will force a rethink on the part of the government.”

Internet connections were cut in parts of the capital on Thursday with two major service providers confirming on Twitter that the block was implemented “as per instructions from the government”. On Friday there were cuts in several parts of Uttar Pradesh, including the capital Lucknow.

India recorded the world’s highest number of internet shutdowns, according to the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre. The longest shutdown has been recorded in Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority territory, where the block has been in place since August when the government scrapped the state’s decades-old autonomy.

The government has shown no signs of backing down on the contentious law passed on December 11 that is seen as discriminating against Muslims, but the unrest poses the biggest challenge for Modi in his six-year reign.

The large-scale eruption of protests comes amid the slowest economic growth in more than six years, rising unemployment and a growing unease fuelled by a series of surprise decisions. Modi and Shah scrapped seven decades of autonomy in Kashmir and announced plans for the nationwide citizens registry that would require people to prove their citizenship.

This new law has raised fears about damage to India’s traditional secular ethos enshrined in its constitution that treats all religions equally.

Anger grows

The new law is seen as a precursor to a campaign to weed out illegal migrants. Demonstrations first began in the eastern state of Assam where there are fears that the new law will allow an influx of migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. About 1.9-million people in Assam — many of them Muslim — risk losing their Indian citizenship after the state enforced the citizens register in August.

“Many of my friends are Muslims, they’re telling me they don’t feel safe in their own homes,” said Sneha Christuraj, 25, one of the thousands who turned out at the protest in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital. “No-one should feel like that.”

Film stars and writers joined marches across a dozen Indian cities and towns against the Citizenship Amendment Act that bars undocumented Muslims from neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from seeking citizenship while allowing in migrants from other religions. Fears that it may be used to disenfranchise Indian Muslims were driven by the government’s plans for the citizens register.

I will convert to Islam if that’s what it takes to protect fellow Muslim citizens

Not far from parliament in Delhi on Thursday, a crowd of about 800 students and citizens sang songs and chanted slogans against Modi and Shah. Srishti Parihar, a 19-year-old student at Miranda House college, said she was angry.

“We will stand with each other and sink with each other, “ she said. “I will convert to Islam if that’s what it takes to protect fellow Muslim citizens.”

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, said the state would take “revenge” by seizing properties and auctioning them to recover damages from protesters who took part in violence.

With Abhijit Roy Chowdhury, Shruti Srivastava and Kartik Goyal.

Bloomberg