Thousands of university students flooded the streets of India’s capital yesterday, while a southern state government led a march and demonstrators held a silent protest in the north-east, to protest against a new law giving citizenship to non-Muslims who entered India illegally to flee religious persecution in several neighbouring countries.
The protests in New Delhi followed a night of violent clashes between the police and demonstrators at Jamia Millia Islamia University. People who student organisers said were not students set three buses on fire and the police stormed the university library, firing tear gas at students crouched under desks.
Members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said opposition parties were using the students as pawns.
At Jamia Millia Islamia University yesterday, thousands stood outside the locked-down campus. Inside, hundreds of students took part in a peaceful sit-in, holding placards denouncing the injuries of dozens of students the night before.
Mr Mujeeb Ahmad, a 21-year-old Arabic major, returned to campus yesterday to join the sit-in and retrieve the book bag he had lost fleeing the library, where he had been studying for exams.
“We thought we were safe in the library,” he said, adding that he and others had locked the library doors from the inside. Policemen broke them down, and at least one officer fired tear gas, he said, holding up an empty canister he said he had picked up from the library floor.
Mr Modi’s government says the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which was approved by Parliament last week, will make India a safe haven for Hindus and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But critics say the legislation, which for the first time conditions Indian citizenship on religion, violates the secular Constitution of the world’s largest democracy.
The law’s passage has set off protests across India, but Assam state, the centre of a decades-old movement against illegal immigrants, has seen the highest toll.
Assam police officials said officers have fatally shot five protesters in state capital Guwahati while attempting to restore order to a city engulfed in demonstrations since last week. About 1,500 people have been arrested for violence including arson and vandalism, police spokesman G.P. Singh said, adding that the authorities were reviewing surveillance videos and anticipated making more arrests.
Schools will remain closed until Sunday, the government has blocked Internet service statewide and a curfew has been imposed from 9pm to 6am.
Municipal workers were clearing the city of debris yesterday and some businesses reopened, as the All Assam Students Union, which has spearheaded Assam’s anti-immigration movement for decades, led a silent protest. The group and its followers fear that an influx of migrants will dilute native Assamese culture and political sway.
The citizenship law follows a contentious citizenship registry process in Assam intended to weed out people who immigrated illegally.