It seems there is nothing India’s prime minister can say to calm the hundreds of thousands of protesters raging across the country in a strong show of dissent against a new citizenship law.
Not even a mass curfew or the deployment of thousands of troops in the country’s capital, New Delhi, could quell the unrelenting protests.
Demonstrators were adamant they would not disperse unless Narendra Modi redefined a controversial rule preventing Muslim illegal immigrants from becoming citizens.
Last Saturday alone, nine demonstrators died of gunshot wounds, raising the nationwide death toll to 23.
It wasn’t long before his Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign rally in New Delhi on Sunday turned to the citizenship law.
“People who are trying to spread lies and fear, look at my work. If you see any trace of divisiveness in my work, show it to the world,” Mr Modi said.
He accused the main opposition Indian National Congress party of conspiring to “push not only New Delhi but other parts of the country into a fear psychosis”.
“They are trying every tactic to push me out of power,” he said, urging protesters to desist from attacks on police and other violence.
Exactly what are protesters fighting for?
Their main argument is that a recent amendment to India’s Citizenship Act of 1955 goes against their fundamental right to equality enshrined in its secular constitution.
People of six religious minorities who illegally arrived in India have been afforded the opportunity to gain citizenship, but only if they can prove they escaped some level of religious persecution.
That means the path to citizenship will get easier for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians who have migrated from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The problem for protesters is these are countries in which Muslims comprise an overwhelming majority of the population, yet the rule makes no reference to Muslims.
UNSW’s Professor Clinton Fernandes, who specialises in Australia’s relations with South-East Asian countries, said only non-Muslim minorities in neighbouring Islamic nations would be experiencing persecution and, therefore, be eligible for Indian citizenship.
That would generally rule out Muslims, who account for the majority of the population in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and won’t be as in need of Indian citizenship, Professor Fernandes said.
“In that sense the bill doesn’t go far enough. It should have been extended to include atheists, apostates and heretics in Pakistan (for example) who would be even more persecuted than minority religions,” he told The New Daily.
“Those people should have also been allowed citizenship.”
— AHMAD FARAZ (@h4honour) December 22, 2019
Protesters are not confined to Muslims. They extend to Indian liberals who “in principle believe that religion should not be a test”, Professor Fernandes said.
After decades of pursuing this contentious piece of legislation, Hindu nationalists finally had their way on December 11, when India’s ruling party pushed the bill through Parliament.
The law officially went into effect the following day after it was approved by President Ram Nath Kovind.
Mr Modi maintains that the law protects vulnerable groups from persecution, while opponents say it marginalises the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Protests marred by bloodshed amid spiralling violence
About 20 per cent of Muslims in India reside in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where most of the protest deaths have occurred.
Police, who deny any wrongdoing, said among the 15 people killed in the state was an eight-year-old boy who died in a stampede in the city of Varanasi, the heart of Mr Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
Since last week, police in Uttar Pradesh have taken nearly 900 people into custody for engaging in violence.
Authorities across the country have scrambled to contain the situation, banning public gatherings under Section 144, a British colonial-era law, and blocking internet access.
— Congress (@INCIndia) December 20, 2019
India’s ministry of information and broadcasting issued an advisory last week asking broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence.
A group of politicians from the opposition All India Trinamool Congress party who travelled to Uttar Pradesh to meet families of those killed in the violence were not permitted to leave the airport runway, police said.
“We will not permit them because Section 144 is imposed in the area and it can make the atmosphere more tense,” said Uttar Pradesh’s police chief, OP Singh.