India: Protest erupts against a new citizenship bill

Police officers remove a burning blockade from a road in Guwahati, resistance to the bill has been the strongest in the Assam state, where a movement against undocumented immigrants has simmered for decades [David Talukdar/AFP]


India moved thousands of troops into the northeastern state of Assam on Thursday as violent protests erupted against a new law that would make it easier for non-Muslim minorities from some neighbouring countries to seek citizenship.

Curfew has been imposed in parts of northeast India, including Assam, after protesters came out on the streets against the bill that they fear will encourage Hindus from Bangladesh to settle in the region.

Resistance to the bill has been the strongest in the Assam state, where a movement against undocumented immigrants has simmered for decades.

‘Constitutionally suspect’

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed by parliament’s upper House on Wednesday blocks naturalisation for Muslims from neighbouring countries – a fact critics say violates India’s secular constitution.

“It is constitutionally suspect and legally untenable but let’s see what the Supreme Court does in this case,” said Faizan Mustafa, an expert on constitutional law and vice-chancellor at NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has said the CAB was meant to protect besieged minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In Assam, protesters defied a curfew, torching cars and tyres and chanting anti-Modi slogans.

While the streets of Assam’s capital Guwahati were largely calm as troops moved in from neighbouring states, protesters were back on the streets in other parts such as Morigaon, where they burnt tyres.

Mobile internet has been suspended in 10 districts in Assam for 24 hours until 7 pm Thursday, the government said in an order, adding that social media platforms could potentially be used to “inflame passions and thus exacerbate the law and order situation.”

Turmoil in Assam 

The turmoil in Assam comes just days ahead of an annual summit that Modi plans to host for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe there as part of his campaign to move high-profile diplomatic events outside Delhi to different parts of India, to showcase its diversity.

Protesters attacked the homes of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overnight, blaming them for playing politics with a region with a history of ethnic and religious tensions and by opening the floodgates to more outsiders.

“This a spontaneous public outburst,” said Nehal Jain, a masters student in communications in Guwahati. “First they tell us there are too many illegal immigrants and we need to get rid of them. Then they bring in this law that would allow citizenship to immigrants,” she said.

The Indian Express said the law, which now only requires Presidential assent, unfairly targets India’s 170 million Muslims.

“It is a political signal of a terrible narrowing, a chilling exclusion, directed at India’s own largest minority. India is to be redefined as the natural home of Hindus, it says to India’s Muslims. And that they must, therefore, be content with less natural citizenship.”

The government has said the new law will be followed by a citizenship register that means Muslims must prove they were original residents of India and not refugees from these three countries, potentially rendering some of them stateless.

Members of other faiths listed in the new law, by contrast, have a clear path to citizenship.


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