India’s main opposition party stages silent protest against new law

By Sheikh Saaliq, Associated Press

India’s main opposition party has staged a silent protest in the capital against a contentious new citizenship law.

It comes a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the legislation and accused the opposition of pushing the country into a “fear psychosis”.

About 2,000 people joined the protest at the Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, where the Congress party demanded “protection for the constitution and the rights of people enshrined in it”.

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to India’s streets to call for the revocation of the law, which critics say is the latest effort by Mr Modi’s government to marginalise the country’s 200 million Muslims.

The protests represent the first major roadblock for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda since his party’s landslide re-election last spring (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

The law allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.

Monday’s protest was led by opposition Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi along with other senior leaders, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The leaders read out the preamble to the constitution at the protest site.

The party’s former president, Rahul Gandhi, had urged young people in New Delhi to join the protest.

“It’s not good enough just to feel Indian. At times like these it’s critical to show that you’re Indian & won’t allow to be destroyed by hatred,” Mr Gandhi tweeted on Monday.

Other protests were held across the country on Monday, where thousands came out on the streets against the law.

Protesters shout slogans against a new citizenship law in Gauhati, India (Anupam Nath/AP)

Twenty-three people have been killed nationwide since the citizenship law was passed in Parliament earlier this month in protests that represent the first major roadblock for Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda since his party’s landslide reelection earlier this year.

Most of the deaths have occurred in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where 20% of the state’s 200 million people are Muslim. The state government is controlled by Mr Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Police also seized some shops in the town of Muzaffarnagar in the state.

The crackdown, which began on Sunday, came after the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, vowed on Friday to “take revenge” against people who damaged public property during the protests by seizing their assets.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s spokesman, Shalabh Mani Tripathi, said authorities were “working as per directives of the Supreme Court, which has asked that the damages to public property should be compensated by rioters”.

He did not say how the owners of the shops were identified as offenders.

Authorities across India have taken a hard-line approach to quell the protests.

They have evoked a British colonial-era law banning public gatherings, and internet access has been blocked at times in some states.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has asked broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence.

The communication shutdown has mostly affected New Delhi, the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire northeastern state of Assam.

Undeterred, protesters have continued to rally throughout the country.