The death toll in protests in India against a contentious citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim has reached 23, as nine more people were killed on Saturday in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Fifteen people have died in the state during the protests so far, police spokesman Praveen Kumar said, adding that a “majority of the dead are young people”.
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- Why are so many Indians protesting against the citizenship law?
Most deaths in BJP-ruled state
“Some of them died of bullet injuries, but these injuries are not because of police fire. The police have used only tear gas to scare away the agitating mob,” Kumar said.
He said around a dozen vehicles were set on fire amid protests in the districts of Rampur, Sambhal, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor and Kanpur, where a police station was also torched.
India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh state, home to 204 million people, is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
An anti-terror squad was deployed and internet services were suspended for another 48 hours in the state.
On Friday, six people, including an eight-year-old boy, were killed during the protests in the state with a large Muslim population.
Police said on Saturday that over 600 people were taken into custody. In addition, five people were arrested and 13 police cases filed for posting “objectionable” material on social media.
Police have imposed a British colonial-era law, called Section 144, which bans the assembly of more than four people statewide. The law was also imposed elsewhere in India to thwart an expanding protest movement demanding the revocation of the citizenship law.
In an advisory issued on Friday night, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked for “strict compliance” by the country’s broadcasters in reporting content that could inflame further violence.
Protests across India
Thousands of demonstrators, including students and a large number of women, have vowed to keep up their fight until the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed last week, is revoked.
CAA provides a fast-track route to citizenship to “persecuted” Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but excludes Muslims.
Critics say the law is aimed at marginalising India’s 200 million Muslims and is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Hindu-nationalist agenda, a claim the BJP denies.
As day broke in the capital New Delhi on Saturday, demonstrators held up their mobile phones as torches at India’s biggest mosque Jama Masjid. The area witnessed violent protests on Friday evening.
In Patna in the eastern state of Bihar, three demonstrators suffered bullet wounds and six were hurt from stone-pelting after clashing with counter-protesters, police said.
An all-women protest was held in Assam state’s Guwahati city in the northeast, where the wave of protests started amid fears the immigrants would “dilute” their local cultures.
Six people died in Assam – four in police firing – where the protests first started, spreading to other areas including the southern city of Mangaluru where two people were killed on Thursday.
— ANI (@ANI) December 21, 2019
‘Not a sectarian protest’
The backlash against the CAA marks the strongest show of dissent since Modi was first elected in 2014.
“What is interesting is that a lot of the violence and deaths that have been happening have been in areas governed by the BJP or BJP-aligned parties,” Al Jazeera’s Subina Shrestha said, speaking from the Indian capital.
“Some members of the coalition government have been giving out inciting statements, while others in the coalition are saying that this law is ill-timed,” she said, adding that the mass demonstrations across the country have not been “sectarian” in nature.
“A lot of these people are students, civilians who have come to the streets in solidarity with the Muslims. They are now talking about a constitutional crisis, an existential crisis and the fundamentals of which India’s constitution is based on.”
Rights activists in Uttar Pradesh said local policemen were conducting raids on their houses and offices to prevent them from planning fresh demonstrations.
Discriminating against Muslims
Tarun Khaitan, professor of law and legal theory at the University of Oxford, told Al Jazeera that the BJP government “has been chipping away at India’s constitutional fundamentals” since it came to power in 2014.
“But this act does it so blatantly and so expressly that there is no plausible deniability,” he said.
Khaitan said the law is a threat to the Indian democracy “because for the first time in India’s democratic, independent history, we are going to write religion as a qualification into our citizenship laws”.
He said the protesting Indians have decided it is upon them to save the country’s “pluralistic, secular, democratic constitution”.
In its response to criticism, the BJP government says the law will not impact any Indian citizens, including Muslims.
“I appeal to our Muslim brothers not to fall for lies being spread by opposition parties,” federal Minorities Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.
The BJP would launch a 10-day campaign to reach out to individual families to explain the law, party spokesman Bhupender Yadav said.