New Delhi: Narendera Modi, the Indian prime minister, has defended his government’s new citizenship law to try and counter the continuing countrywide protests against it, in which some 21 people have so far died in clashes with police.
“We passed this bill to help the persecuted (non-Muslims),” Mr Modi declared at a rally in New Delhi on Sunday, where he accused the country’s opposition parties of spreading lies that it had been enacted to snatch away people’s nationality rights.
In an emotionally charged address, Mr Modi emphasised that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) does not compromise the citizenship entitlements of India’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority community.
The act, which was endorsed last weekend, offers citizenship to all non-Muslim illegal immigrants like Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, among others, who fled to India from the Islamic states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 2015.
Since then, tens of thousands of people across India have been demonstrating against the CAA, claiming it to be against India’s ancient and inclusive secular culture as well as its Constitution, which stipulates that religion is not a pre-requisite for citizenship.
The demonstrations prompted authorities to shut down internet and mobile messaging services in many places, including the federal capital New Delhi for several hours last week, to prevent the circulation of inflammatory communications.
The protests, by people of all faiths, however, have been the worst in northern Uttar Pradesh state that is ruled by Mr Modi’s Hindi nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), where at least 15 people, including an eight- year old boy, have died.
Demonstrators claimed that a majority of those killed had died in police shootings, but local authorities deny these claims.
Around 2,000 protesters, including prominent historians, intellectuals, writers and lawyers were also taken into preventive police custody, with the majority of them released a short while later.
Police, however, have been roundly criticised for using ‘disproportionate force’ like baton charges and tear gas against protesters, especially on university campuses in Delhi and other north Indian towns.
Video footage, which went viral on social media platforms earlier this week, showed police kicking and assaulting students in bathrooms, in libraries and even in their dormitories with thick bamboo sticks in Delhi’s Jamia Milina University.
Six students from Aligarh Muslim University, 100 miles south of Delhi, have been hospitalised with grievous injuries due to police beatings, with one of them having his right hand amputated.
Doctors at the same hospital fear two other students may have to undergo limb amputation for similar reasons, the Indian Express newspaper reported on Sunday.
But police forces insist they acted with restraint and used ‘minimal force’, while Mr Modi in his public rally in Delhi defended the police on the grounds that they needed to maintain law and order.
Meanwhile the BJP is launching a countrywide ‘outreach’ programme over the next 10 days to educate the public about the CAA and expose the ‘lies’ and ‘myths’ being propagated about it by the opposition.
This will include senior BJP MPs and leaders holding 250 news conferences, some 1,000 rallies and interacting with some 30 million families to explain the efficacy of the new Citizenship law.