Protests turn violent in India over controversial citizenship law

Critics argue the new law is anti-Muslim and unconstitutional.

NEW DELHI -- Protests continued unabated across India on Tuesday over a controversial new law that offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from several neighboring nations.

Riot police fired tear gas on the streets of a mostly-Muslim area in New Delhi, as throngs of demonstrators hurled bricks and set fire to a police booth and motorcycles. There were unconfirmed reports of injuries among protesters and police officers.

The demonstrations began last week when India's parliament, controlled by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, passed an amendment to the Citizenship Act after hours of contentious debate. The amendment provides a path to Indian citizenship for religious minorities from the predominantly Muslim nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have entered India illegally. The original act, initially passed in 1955, had previously prohibited illegal migrants from obtaining citizenship.

Proponents of the amendment say it will grant sanctuary to those fleeing religious persecution, while critics argue it is anti-Muslim and unconstitutional. A number of human rights activists and lawyers have already begun the process of challenging the constitutionality of the Citizenship Act in courts, saying the amendment seeks to enshrine religious discrimination into law and de-legitimize Muslim citizenship in a predominately Hindu country.

The amendment was signed into law on Dec. 12, sparking nationwide protests that turned violent over the weekend.

Riot police clashed with student-led protesters at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi on Sunday. Officers allegedly stormed the campus, broke into the library and other rooms, fired tear gas and dragged protesters out to assault them. Dozens of students were injured, while at least 40 were detained overnight and subsequently released the next morning.

The violence triggered solidarity protests at dozens of college campuses across the country on Monday. Students and school officials are calling for a judicial inquiry into the incident.

“No permission was given to the police to enter our campus,” Jamia Millia Islamia chief proctor Waseem Ahmad Khan told ABC News in an interview Tuesday. “Students and staff suffered psychological trauma, and we have also had damage to the property -- library and laboratories, for instance.”

Delhi police have defended their actions, saying officers were pelted with stones. The matter is under investigation, according to Delhi police spokesperson M.S. Randhawa.

Arguably the fiercest opposition to the new law has been seen in India's northeastern state of Assam, where people fear that an influx of non-Muslim migrants from nearby Bangladesh will change the demographics of their state and dilute the Assamese identity and culture. At least five people have been killed during protests in Assam over the past week.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has called the violence "unfortunate and deeply distressing," and he has blamed the Indian National Congress opposition party for "creating panic and dividing people."

Modi has also urged for calm, assuring citizens that the amendment "does not affect any citizen of India of any religion," but rather it "illustrates India's centuries-old culture of acceptance, harmony, compassion and brotherhood."

"No Indian has anything to worry about regarding this act," the prime minister wrote on Twitter Monday. "This act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India."

Critics, however, have pointed out that the new law conveniently excludes neighboring Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation where some 800,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled religious persecution. The Indian government has sought to deport Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge in the country.

The amendment also cuts out the Ahmadis, a Muslim minority community in Pakistan who have faced violence and discrimination in their own Muslim-majority country.

In a statement released last week, before the law was passed, a group of more than 1,000 Indian scientists and scholars expressed concern over the proposed amendment.

"The idea of India that emerged from the independence movement, and as enshrined in our constitution, is that of a country that aspires to treat people of all faiths equally," the group said in the statement. "The use of religion as a criterion for citizenship in the proposed bill would mark a radical break with this history and would be inconsistent with the basic structure of the constitution. We fear, in particular, that the careful exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the Bill will greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country."

Elizabeth Chatterjee, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at Queen Mary University of London, said the new law is part of Modi's agenda to "reshape India along religious lines."

“At the same time, the government has also proposed expanding a National Register of Citizens, already piloted disastrously in the eastern state of Assam,” Chatterjee told ABC News in an email Tuesday. “Many poor Muslims who have lived in India for decades risk being made stateless if they cannot produce the correct paperwork. In Assam, India has begun building detention centers that have been likened to China's massive 're-education' camps for Uighur Muslims.”

"Despite the negative global media coverage," she added, "it’s hard to see where real international pushback will come."

Reporting by Sreya Banerjee in New Delhi, India. Writing and additional reporting by Guy Davies and Morgan Winsor in London, England.

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