Via Financial Times

Thousands of demonstrators protested against a new citizenship law at Delhi’s iconic Jama Masjid mosque after Friday prayers, heightening tension over the legislation that critics say discriminates against Muslims.

Police clashed with protesters outside the 17th-century mosque as they tried to arrest the leaders of the rally, which was held in defiance of a ban on protests in many parts of the country. Violence broke out as demonstrators tried to march through the city and vehicles were set alight, while police used water cannon and batons to push them back.

As anger has erupted across India, authorities have suspended public gatherings and closed mobile networks, detaining hundreds of demonstrators.

Muslim worshippers joined social activists at the rally in Delhi on Friday, while protests have continued in other cities.

The backlash against the law, an important element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal to redefine India as a Hindu homeland, has escalated since the bill was passed by parliament last week.

It offers Hindus and other non-Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan fast-tracked citizenship, which critics say undermines India’s secular foundations.

Three people were killed at separate protests in Lucknow and Mangaluru on Thursday, adding to at least six deaths in recent days from riots in north-eastern India.

Among the hundreds detained this week were opposition politicians and prominent intellectuals, such as Ramachandra Guha, a historian of modern India.

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law, before offering Friday prayers at Jama Masjid in the old quarters of Delhi, India, December 20, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Demonstrators outside the Jama Masjid mosque © Reuters

The protests pose one of the most serious domestic threats to Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party in more than five years of government.

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The bill has also drawn international condemnation from the US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom, while heavy-handed tactics employed against demonstrators prompted an outcry from rights groups.

The unrest has yet to faze businesses, however, with Indian stocks rallying to record highs this week as investors bet that the protests would not derail Mr Modi’s economic agenda.

The benchmark Sensex index traded at an all-time high of more than 41,000 points on Friday, buoyed by hopes that the country was emerging from an economic slowdown.

The protests started in north-eastern states such as Assam last week because of fears among locals that the bill could lead to an influx of migrants into their region. But they have since taken on a broader dimension, drawing condemnation not only from India’s Muslim community but also from university students.

“We’re here and we’re going to keep coming back,” said Suman, a PhD student in sociology at a public university in Mumbai, who was attending a rally in the city.