Citizenship Bill: Tensions rise as protests flare in Assam

Two protesters reportedly shot and killed as India deploys troops, imposes curfew after passing of contentious measure.

Assam protests India
Crowds defied a curfew to protest against the bill [Biju Boro/AFP]

At least two people have been killed in India’s Assam state, according to reports, as police clashed with protesters opposing a new law that would make it easier for non-Muslim minorities from some neighbouring countries to seek citizenship.

Police in Assam’s main city of Guwahati on Thurdsay fired bullets and tear gas as groups of protesters demonstrated in the streets, defying a curfew imposed the previous day. 

Ramen Talukdar, superintendent of Gauhati Medical College Hospital, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency two people had died from gunshot wounds and 11 others were injured, also with bullet wounds. The Associated Press news agency also said two protesters were shot and killed, citing the police.

India deployed thousands of troops to the northeastern state of Assam as a curfew was imposed in parts of northeast India, including Assam, after protesters came out on the streets against the bill that they fear will encourage Hindus from Bangladesh to settle in the region.

Resistance to the bill has been the strongest in the Assam state, where a movement against undocumented immigrants has simmered for decades.

‘Constitutionally suspect’

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed by parliament’s upper house on Wednesday blocks naturalisation for Muslims from neighbouring countries – a fact critics say violates India’s secular constitution.

“It is constitutionally suspect and legally untenable but let’s see what the Supreme Court does in this case,” said Faizan Mustafa, an expert on constitutional law and vice chancellor at NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad.

Kirti Singh, a human rights lawyer at India’s Supreme Court told Al Jazeera that a lot of people felt the law was “unconstitutional”.

“It clearly goes against Article 14, which is the right to equality, and Article 15, which is the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of religion and sex and so on so it is quite a blatantly discriminatory amendment,” she said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Hindu nationalist government has said the CAB is meant to protect besieged minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

India protests
A man walks past damaged vehicles that were set on fire by demonstrators in Guwahati [Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters]

In Assam, protesters defied a curfew, torching cars and tyres and chanting anti-Modi slogans.

While the streets of Assam’s capital Guwahati were largely calm as troops moved in from neighbouring states, protesters were back on the streets in other parts such as Morigaon, where they set tyres alight.

Mobile internet has been suspended in 10 districts in Assam for 24 hours until 7pm Thursday, the government said in an order, adding that social media platforms could potentially be used to “inflame passions and thus exacerbate the law and order situation”.

“All through the day we saw shut shops, fuel stations are shut, schools are shut. Every traffic light was a protest spot, people defied curfew, in thousands people were out on the street and they were protesting,” Al Jazeera’s Vohra said.

Tear gas canisters had also been fired during the day, Vohra said. 

Turmoil in Assam

The turmoil in Assam comes just days ahead of an annual summit there in which Modi plans to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of his campaign to move high-profile diplomatic events outside Delhi to different parts of India, to showcase its diversity.

Protesters attacked the homes of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overnight, blaming them for playing politics in a region with a history of ethnic and religious tensions and by opening the floodgates to more outsiders.

“This a spontaneous public outburst,” said Nehal Jain, a masters student in communications in Guwahati. “First, they tell us there are too many illegal immigrants and we need to get rid of them. Then they bring in this law that would allow citizenship to immigrants,” she said.

The Indian Express said the law, which now only requires presidential assent, unfairly targets India’s 170 million Muslims.

“It is a political signal of a terrible narrowing, a chilling exclusion, directed at India’s own largest minority. India is to be redefined as the natural home of Hindus, it says to India’s Muslims. And that they must, therefore, be content with a less natural citizenship.”

Assam protests, India
Opposition parties and rights group have said the law discriminates against Muslims [Biju Boro/AFP]

Amnesty International dubbed it a “bigoted law that must be immediately repealed”.

“The Bill, while inclusionary in its stated objective, is exclusionary in its structure and intent,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a regional political party based in southern Kerala state, on Thursday filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the bill.

The government has said the new law will be followed by a national citizenship register which will put the onus on Muslims to prove they are original residents of India and not refugees from these three countries, potentially rendering some of them stateless.

Members of other faiths listed in the new law, by contrast, have a clear path to citizenship.

Also left out are other minorities fleeing political or religious persecution elsewhere in the region such as Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingya from Myanmar and Tibetans from China.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies