A controversial citizenship law, the Citizen Amendment Act, has sparked protests across India, with demonstrators fearing that it could endanger the nation’s Muslim minority. The new legislation will provide an expedited path to citizenship for migrants who entered India illegally before 2014 if they are Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, or Sikh. Muslims, however, are excluded. Demonstrators view the law as blatant discrimination and fear the increasingly authoritarian government is moving away from India’s secular constitution. The unrest has become increasingly violent; as of Saturday, the death toll has reached 23, as nine more people were recently killed in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The government has responded to the demonstrations by banning large gatherings in areas across the country and ordering mobile internet to be blocked in parts of Delhi.
A police order instructed cellular companies to cut communications in five areas, including locations of planned protests. India leads the world in internet shutdowns, with 67% of shutdowns taking place in India in 2018. Authorities claim they are a way to prevent violence and unrest. This week marked the first time a shutdown had been imposed on the capital – they have also been imposed in Assam, Karnataka, Kashmir, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, home to a large Muslim minority.
“India today has the ignominy of being the largest internet shutdown in the world,” said Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Indian Communist party, to The Guardian. “It is unacceptable … This is worse than what we saw during the [1975-77] emergency. Today’s protests showed the determination of youngsters to not let democracy be butchered. This was not a one-off protest, such protests will continue.” The Congress party leader, Rahul Gandhi, described the internet shutdown as an “insult to India’s soul.” Authorities also announced a blanket ban on all protests in Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi, using a provision knows as Section 144 to forbid gatherings of four or more people. Rahul GandhiThis is an abuse of power and unreasonable violation of fundamental rights which can and should be challenged in the courts,” said Constitutional law expert Gautam Bhatia to the BBC.
Demonstrators fear that this new legislation is part of the government’s larger agenda that could turn India’s Muslim population into second-class citizens. In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, of its autonomy and statehood. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah also pledged to apply the National Register of Citizens process nationwide to rid India of “infiltrators” and “termites” as a follow-up to the citizenship legislation, which had stoked fear within India’s Muslim population of being targeted and harassed. Already, the mass citizenship check has left millions of Indian Muslims in danger of being declared stateless. Dozens of Muslims have even been lynched by Hindu mobs, with the perpetrators often walking free. And yet, Mr. Modi remains popular and powerful, and anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rise.
Many international observers have condemned the law. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the legislation marked a “dangerous turn” and called upon the U.S. government to consider sanctions against Amit Shah, India’s minister of home affairs. Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the law was “fundamentally discriminatory” and appears “to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India’s constitution.” Protests have spread to other parts of the world, including the U.S. and Britain. Opponents of the measure are also preparing to challenge its legality in India’s Supreme Court.
Presently, the demonstrations show no signs of letting up. Tens of thousands continue to flood the streets, with solidarity protests being organized in nearly two dozen cities across India, in what has become the biggest political challenge for Prime Minister Modi’s government since it came to power nearly six years ago.
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