Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended a contentious citizenship law his government passed as protesters continued to demonstrate against the new legislation that excludes Muslims.
Modi took the stage at a rally in New Delhi on Sunday to launch his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s campaign for the capital legislative assembly elections in February.
But he quickly turned to address the contentious law and the ensuing nationwide protests that have left at least 23 people dead.
“The law does not impact 1.3 billion Indians, and I must assure Muslim citizens of India that this law will not change anything for them,” said Modi, adding that his government introduces reforms without any religious bias.
“We have never asked anyone if they go to a temple or a mosque when it comes to implementing welfare schemes. Brothers, since this law has been passed, some political parties have been spreading rumours. These people are misleading the public, they are inciting the public.
“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,” he said.
Modi accused India’s main opposition 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.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), that was passed in Parliament earlier this month, allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.
Critics have slammed the legislation as a violation of India’s secular constitution and have called it the latest effort by Modi’s government to marginalise the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Modi has defended the law as a humanitarian gesture.
Several killed and hundreds arrested as protests against a new 'anti-Muslim' citizenship law continue in cities across India.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) December 20, 2019
Meanwhile, people continued to gather on Sunday outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, where the protests first erupted.
“Despite the fact that it’s Sunday, a weekend, students are still gathering,” Al Jazeera’s Subina Shrestha said, reporting from outside the campus.
“They unfurled the constitution of India and people over here are doing sit-ins, they are talking about the constitution, distributing pamphlets which explain what the citizenship law is.
“People from all walks of life have been gathering.”
The protests began in the northeast state of Assam, the centre of a decades-old movement against migrants, before spreading to predominantly Muslim universities and then nationwide.
Alarmed by the rising violence, authorities have shut down internet and mobile messaging services in New Delhi, closed metro stations and cancelled permissions for large demonstrations.
Earlier in the week, thousands of stone-pelting protesters battled police, who fired shots in the air and used tear gas, in northeast New Delhi.
In August, Modi revoked the special status of the Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir region, and in November, a court ruling cleared the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque razed by Hindus.
And now, with the CAA, some are questioning the government’s stance towards Indian Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of the country’s population.