Demonstrators clashed with police for a third day in Delhi on Dec. 17 as protests against a divisive citizenship law spread to universities across the country, raising fears of widespread unrest. Rights activists and Christian leaders say the protests began to spread after the federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attempted to crush peaceful opposition to the discriminatory law. “The protests by students in many universities indicate the great worries among the people. Students are the antenna and the conscience of the people, and future decision-makers,” said the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), a Protestant church group, in a Dec. 16 statement. The protests began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government amended India’s 64-year citizenship law on Dec. 11, allowing illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan to become Indians — provided they are not Muslim. Resistance began in northeastern states, bordering Bangladesh, where the majority of an estimated 15 million migrants live.
Bangladeshi people, both Hindu and Muslim, have been crossing the porous border to India since 1971 when then East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The ethnic communities in the northeast fear giving citizenship to Bengali Hindus living in their states will make them minorities in their own land and took to streets in protest. The government responded with a show of police force and blocking the internet. The protests spread to New Delhi on Dec. 15 when hundreds of people near the city’s Jamia Milia Islamia University began demonstrations along public roads against omitting Muslims from the revised law. It turned violent after protesters torched government buses, two police vehicles and smashed dozens of cars. Police responded with batons and tear gas. Over 60 people including students, policemen and firefighters were reportedly injured. Police were accused of using excessive force on the campus of the Muslim university and allegedly attacked people in their hostel rooms, injuring several students. Footage of bleeding and injured students was posted on social media. The protests soon spread to other universities in New Delhi and the Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow. Unrest was also reported in the southern cities of Hyderabad and Chennai, and in Kolkata in the northeast. Students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi also demonstrated against the revised law and heavy-handed police tactics. In a Dec. 16 statement, EFI general secretary Reverend Vijayesh Lal, expressed concern the revised law was part of a BJP push to make India a Hindu nation. A citizenship register — the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — compiled in the northeastern state of Assam had left out some 2 million people, almost all of them Hindu and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, he said. But the government assured that the migrants would be included if they were not Muslim, Reverend Lal said, adding that the law amendment should be seen as a way to facilitate the inclusion of Hindus. This “exposes the [BJP’s] motives and political agenda,” he said. The “nation is concerned about the terrifying impact of the law that threatens to radically change the status of a large number of Indians,” the statement said. Father Anthoniraj Thumma of the Federation of Telugu Churches in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and the Telangana took part in a protest in Hyderabad. The citizenship law is “a serious matter affecting the very foundation and fundamentals of India. They are diametrically opposed to the secular ethos, spirit and tradition of India,” he told ucanews. “India belongs to people of all faiths. India must welcome all immigrants and refugees without discrimination of religion, nationality and ethnicity,” Father Thumma said. “We need to rise up against the BJP’s agenda of making India a Hindu Rashtra [nation],” he said, noting that Pope Francis “insists on giving shelter to all immigrants.” Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum said it was unlikely the country was moving toward having a mass civil disobedience situation. However, the Christian lay leader said: “If the government wants this nation to develop and flourish then it has to take into its confidence all sections of people without discriminating against any community.” The current unrest “Shows that people are worried about the implications of the new law,” Dias said.
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