Amid citizenship law outcry, Indian authorities ban protests
By ASHOK SHARMA, NEW DELHI (AP): Police banned public gatherings in parts of the Indian capital and other cities for a third day Friday and cut internet services to try to stop growing protests against a new citizenship law that have left 11 people dead and more than 4,000 others detained.
Thousands of protesters stood inside and on the steps of New Delhi’s Jama Masijd, one of India’s largest mosques, after Friday afternoon prayers, waving Indian flags and shouting slogans against the government and the citizenship law, which critics say threatens India’s secular democracy in favor of a Hindu state.
Police had banned a proposed march from the mosque to an area near India’s Parliament, and a large number of officers were waiting outside the mosque. Late Friday, police sprayed protesters with a water cannon to keep them from marching toward a monument in Central Delhi where protests have been converging, about 4 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) away.
About 10,000 people protested outside New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, which was the site of weekend clashes in which students accused police of using excessive force that sent dozens to hospitals. They collected signatures for a petition demanding the new law be scrapped.
Violence erupted in several towns in northern Uttar Pradesh state where protesters set some police posts and vehicles on fire and hurled rocks at security forces. Police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse the protesters in Muzzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Firozabad and Gorakhpur.
Police officer Dinesh Rai said two protesters were killed in Meerut, a town in Uttar Pradesh, when some people fired gunshots from a rooftop. He said police didn’t fire at the protesters and were investigating the deaths.
State police chief O.P. Singh said more than 100 people had been arrested and 3,305 had been detained since Thursday.
Eleven deaths have been reported across the country — five in Assam, four in Uttar Pradesh and two in southern Karnataka state.
Surveillance video seen by The Associated Press shows police entering Highland Hospital in Mangalore, a southern Indian city, on Thursday night and using batons to disperse protesters who had taken shelter inside.
The video shows two policemen trying to kick open a hospital ward door and some people wearing masks running in a hospital corridor. It earlier shows some protesters throwing rocks at police and then barging into the hospital.
Mohammad Abdullah, a hospital employee, said by phone that police entered the hospital and “fired tear gas shells.”
The protests have targeted the new citizenship law, which applies to Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally but can demonstrate religious persecution in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.
Critics say it’s a violation of the country’s secular constitution and the latest effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government to marginalize India’s 200 million Muslims.
Modi has defended it as a humanitarian gesture.
The protests began last week in the northeastern border state of Assam, the seat of a decades-old movement against migrants, and at predominantly Muslim universities and communities in New Delhi, and now include a broad section of the Indian public nationwide.
A British colonial-era law banning the assembly of more than four people was in place in parts of the Indian capital as well as in several cities in Assam and Uttar Pradesh, where a motorized rickshaw driver was fatally shot during a protest in Lucknow.
Authorities erected roadblocks and turned areas around mosques in New Delhi, Lucknow and other Muslim-dominated areas into security fortresses to prevent widespread demonstrations after Friday prayers.
Police temporarily held 1,200 protesters in New Delhi on Thursday and hundreds of others were detained in other cities after they defied bans on assembly. Most protesters were released later in the day.
While some see the citizenship law as a slight against Muslims, others, including some Hindu conservatives in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, fear it will encourage immigration to India, where public services for its 1.3 billion people are already highly strained.
“In effect, some of the BJP’s own rank and file, the very people the party has sought to help, have come out against the law,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center.
Kugelman said that the government’s failure to respond to the protests, except to accuse political opponents of orchestrating them, is “likely to galvanize the protesters even more.”
The protests come amid an ongoing crackdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region stripped of its semi-autonomous status and demoted from a state into a federal territory last summer.
They also follow a contentious process in Assam meant to weed out foreigners living in the country illegally. Nearly 2 million people were excluded from an official list of citizens, about half Hindu and half Muslim, and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be considered foreign.
India is also building a detention center for some of the tens of thousands of people the courts are expected to ultimately determine have entered illegally. Modi’s interior minister, Amit Shah, has pledged to roll out the process nationwide.
Critics say the process is a thinly veiled plot to deport millions of Muslims.
Associated Press writer Sheikh Saaliq contributed to this report.