At least 15 people were reported to have died in violent clashes rocking India’s largest province of Uttar Pradesh as protests against Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government intensify in India.
From New Delhi to Hyderabad, a new citizenship law and other planned reforms have swept India in the first major challenge to Mr Modi’s rule after his ruling Bharatiya Janata party swept elections in May.
Violent clashes between protesters and police in Uttar Pradesh over the past three days have left 15 people dead, while hundreds of others have been detained, the Press Trust of India reported.
Indian police have come under criticism for their heavy-handed response to the protests, which began in the north-east province of Assam and spread to student campuses across the country. Authorities have blamed the violence on protesters, saying that they have thrown stones and set vehicles on fire.
On Friday in New Delhi, police fired water cannons and “lathi-charged” protesters — lathis are long sticks — to disperse the crowds at Jama Masjid, one of the largest Mughal-era mosques in India. After authorities temporarily cut mobile networks, the capital city shut down metros and barricaded roads this week in an attempt to quell the demonstrations.
The new law provides a provision to fast-track citizenship of immigrants from most major religions, except Islam. Experts say the legislation is part of a larger project pursued by the ruling party to create a Hindu homeland after India’s independence and partition in 1947, when Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan were split into two.
“It advances the Hindu nationalist project, the government sees this as the unfinished business of partition,” said Niraja Gopal Jayal, political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
What is striking about the mass demonstrations is that protesters are reclaiming the secular spirit of the Indian constitution, said Ms Jayal. “They are reminding society of that constitutional vision of citizenship and repudiating a majoritarian concept of the Indian nation.”
The protests have drawn international attention to Mr Modi’s government following months of controversial policies that critics say marginalise Muslims. In August, the government stripped the special status of Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim majority state. Since then, the region has been flooded with troops and the internet has been cut for months.
Despite mounting concern over the government’s policies, New Delhi has stood behind its policies. External affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reportedly cancelled a meeting with a US Congress committee because it included congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had introduced a resolution urging India to lift restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Efforts to silence Pramila Jayapal are deeply troubling,” tweeted US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, “the US and India have an important partnership — but our partnership can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy, and human rights”.