India arrests prominent historian as protests spread
Indian police detained Ramachandra Guha, one of the country’s most prominent historians, on Thursday as authorities battled to contain protests against a citizenship bill that favours non-Muslims.
Narendra Modi’s government implemented Section 144 of the criminal code, which prohibits public gatherings, in the capital New Delhi as well as districts in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, and Karnataka, home to the tech hub of Bangalore.
Police have made hundreds of arrests since the protests erupted last week and on Thursday detained demonstrators gathering at Bangalore’s town hall, among them Mr Guha. The historian of modern India was accused of protesting in violation of the ban.
“You have used a colonial era law to suppress us and our voices,” Mr Guha said in a tweet addressed to the Bangalore police commissioner.
The demonstrations, in which at least six people have been killed, were sparked by the passage of a citizenship law that critics said marginalised Muslims and violated the constitution of the world’s largest democracy.
The chief minister in the state of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee has led marches in Kolkata against Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, vowing to block the implementation of the law. “I urge home minister Amit Shah to ensure that the nation does not burn. Your job is not to set the country on fire, but to douse it,” said Ms Banerjee.
In New Delhi, police in riot gear barricaded roads and stopped a planned protest at the Red Fort, a prominent tourist spot.
Authorities have also shut down internet service and mobile phone networks in areas across the country. More than a dozen metro stations in New Delhi were also closed.
While many Indians have railed against what they see as the bill’s anti-Muslim character, protests in the north-east of the country have been driven instead by concerns that it would allow Hindu migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh to settle there, threatening the region’s cultural identity.
Police responded to those protests by shooting protesters and suspending internet services in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.
Mr Modi has blamed the unrest on political opportunism, charging opposition parties for “creating an atmosphere of lies to scare Indian Muslims” and “spreading violence”.
Asim Ali, a political researcher at the University of Delhi, said: “The government has clamped down with section 144. They aren’t giving Indians the democratic right to protest and raise their voice.
“But the government feels it can afford an authoritarian clampdown because the silent majority is with them. It will not be a turning point unless ordinary Hindus join the protests.”
India’s crackdown on the protesters drew condemnation from international rights groups on Thursday. Authorities “are clamping down on protesters by using repressive laws,” said Avinash Kumar, Amnesty India’s executive director. They “must stop criminalising protest, [and] lift disproportionate restrictions on free assembly and expression”.
The new law was passed after India stripped Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state, of its special status in August. Last month, the supreme court cleared the way for a Hindu temple to be built on a contested site where a mosque once stood.