GUWAHATI – As protests against a divisive new citizenship law raged on Saturday, several countries, including the US, UK, Israel Canada and Singapore, have asked their citizens to exercise caution while travelling to the Northeast India which has witnessed violent protests against the amended Citizenship Act.
Many in the far-flung, resource-rich northeast fear the new legislation will grant citizenship to a large number of immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, who they accuse of stealing jobs and diluting the region’s cultural identity. Several thousand protesters rallied in the capital New Delhi on Saturday evening, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi´s government to revoke the law, some holding signs reading: “Stop Dividing India”. “People are not gathered here as Hindus, or Muslims, people are gathered here as citizens of India. We reject this bill that has been brought by the Modi government and we want equal treatment as enshrined in our constitution,” said protester Amit Baruah, 55, a journalist.
The protests turned violent in the West Bengal state, a hotbed of political unrest, with at least 20 buses and parts of two railway stations set on fire as demonstrators blocked roads and set fire to tyres. No injuries were reported. Tensions also simmered in Guwahati in Assamstate, the epicentre of the unrest, where medical staff said two people were shot dead and 26 hospitalised late Thursday after security forces fired live rounds.
On Friday, a funeral procession of 18-year-old Sam Stafford, who was killed in the firing, was attended by hundreds of angry and distraught mourners who shouted, “long live Assam”. “We were watching news all day on TV about the protests when my nephew left home in the evening. We asked him not to go out but he went with his friends,” the student’s aunt Julie Stafford told AFP. Anticipating further unrest, authorities extended an internet ban across Assam till Monday. Most of the shops were shut and anxious residents stocked up supplies on Saturday when the curfew was relaxed during the day.
The Citizenship Amendment Act allows for the fast-tracking of applications from religious minorities including Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims. Samujjal Bhattacharya from the All Assam Students Union, which has been at the forefront of the protests, told AFP the group would continue its fight against the new law “in the streets and in the court”.
Modi and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe postponed a summit that was reportedly due to be held in Guwahati from today (Sunday), and the United States and Britain warned their nationals to “exercise caution” if travelling to the wider northeast region. The Islamic groups, the opposition and rights organisations say the law is a part of Modi´s Hindu nationalist agenda to marginalise India´s 200 million Muslims. He denies this and says that Muslims from the three countries are not covered by the legislation because they have no need of India´s protection. Modi´s right-hand man Amit Shah on Saturday sought to reassure the northeastern states, saying the government would protect their “culture, social identity, language and political rights”.
Assam has long been a hotbed of ethnic tensions. In 1983 some 2,000 people, mainly Bengali Muslims, were butchered in what became known as the Nellie massacre. This year a citizenship registry left off 1.9 million people — many of them Muslims — unable to prove that they or their forebears were in Assam before 1971, leaving them to face possible statelessness. “There has been this agitation (against) illegal migration from Bangladesh over many years,” Sanjoy Hazarika, a professor at Delhi´s Jamia Millia Islamia University, told AFP. “They feel that their rights to land, to jobs, and the entire social fabric education, existing social services and so on will be impacted by this.”
On Friday university students in Delhi clashed with police, who used batons and tear gas shells to quell the protests. Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Congress party has called the law “an attempt to ethnically cleanse the northeast”.
So far, France, Israel, US and the UK have issued travel advisories for nationals travelling to India in view of the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. In a statement issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United Kingdom has urged visitors to the northeast to avoid “all but essential” travel and “monitor local media” for the latest information about the circumstances around them. The UK also asked citizens to avoid all travel to Kashmir, Ladakh and all areas (except Wagah) near the border with Pakistan. The US also asked citizens to “exercise caution” in the context of protests and violence against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). “The US government has temporarily suspended official travel to Assam,” the US has announced. The French and Israeli governments have also urged their citizens to stay alert while travelling in India. The advisories were issued after the office of the High Commissioner of UN Human Rights body expressed concern saying that the CAB was “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”.
Meanwhile Amnesty International said the CAB passed by the Indian Parliament legitimises discrimination on the basis of religion and stands in clear violation of both the constitution of India and international human rights law. The bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 to enable irregular migrants to acquire Indian citizenship through naturalisation and registration. However, it restricts the eligibility to only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India on or before 31 December, 2014. The bill also reduces the requirement of residence in India for citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years to five years for these particular communities. Besides adversely impacting the refugees and asylum seekers, the amendments also impact the human rights of Indian citizens – particularly Muslims.
Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty India, said: “The Government of India denies any form of discrimination, but the amendments clearly weaponise the NRC process against Muslims. “It is difficult to view the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in isolation and not look at the larger picture where both the amendments and the NRC may deprive minorities of their citizenship in India. The amendments also set a dangerous shift in the way citizenship will be determined in India. Worryingly, they also stand to create the biggest statelessness crisis of the world causing immense human suffering,” said Kumar, adding: “Welcoming asylum seekers is a positive step, but in a secular country like India, slamming the door on persecuted Muslims and other communities merely for their faith reeks of fear-mongering and bigotry.”
Meanwhile, a Muslim lawmaker from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi, on Saturday filed a petition in the country’s Supreme Court against the CAB. Owaisi, the head of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), vociferously opposed the bill in the lower house of parliament during the debate and even tore its pages on the floor of the house. “AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi has filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act,” a local news gathering agency quoted Owaisi’s lawyer Nizam Pasha as having said. Owaisi alleged the bill was aimed at making Muslims “stateless” and warned it would lead to another partition in India.