Narendra Modi has cast mass anti-government protests against a planned citizenship bill that has incensed India’s Muslim minority as a law and order issue as the death toll continued to rise.
Addressing thousands at a rally on Sunday in New Delhi, Mr Modi blamed the opposition for misleading Muslims and manufacturing “fear psychosis” over contentious citizenship legislation that critics said would give Hindus precedence over religious minorities.
He defended the country’s police, who have been criticised after officers deployed water cannon and tear gas to deter demonstrators. At least 15 people have been killed — including an eight-year-old boy — following clashes between protesters and security agents last week.
Noting that 33,000 police officers had died protecting the country since independence, Mr Modi said: “Today, you are brutally thrashing them. When any problem arises, police don’t ask your religion or caste, whatever the weather or time they are there to help you.”
Mr Modi reverted to familiar nationalistic themes in an appeal to India’s silent majority watching the protests play out in media largely sympathetic to his Hindu nationalist agenda.
He blamed the “urban naxals” — a name for the westernised elite seen as sympathetic to Muslims — and the Congress opposition for spreading “lies” about Muslims potentially being disenfranchised by the new citizenship law.
Mr Modi said that there have been no discussions to introduce a national register of citizens, an official record of legal citizens, in contrast with previous remarks made by his home affairs minister that it would be implemented by 2024 and used to throw out “infiltrators”.
In support of the citizenship law, which creates a legal loophole for persecuted religious communities from neighbouring countries except Muslims, Mr Modi raised the spectre of “love jihad”, a supposed Muslim conspiracy to seize power in India by seducing Hindu women and converting them to Islam to tip the demographic balance.
“Girls are religiously converted and forced to marry in Pakistan. It is well-documented,” Mr Modi claimed. “These people have come to India only due to such religious persecution.”
Mr Modi’s remarks come just weeks ahead of assembly elections due to be held in Delhi where the ruling Bharatiya Janata party hopes to oust the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) from power.
His speech would probably resonate with voters who saw the protests as misguided, said analysts. “He is painting the AAP and Congress as anti-national agents of violence,” said Asim Ali, a political researcher at the University of Delhi. “This has proved to be a winning strategy.”
Mr Modi led the BJP to a landslide victory in May after a campaign that focused on national security following a showdown with Pakistan that brought the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.