Deadly protests against India’s new citizenship law passed earlier this month continue despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reassurance to Muslims that the legislation is not aimed at marginalising them.
At least 25 people have died in almost two weeks of demonstrations and violence after the government passed the contentious law earlier this month, with most deaths reported from the northern Uttar Pradesh state, home to nearly 204 million people, 20 percent of whom are Muslims.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governs Uttar Pradesh, whose Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a controversial Hindu monk, had vowed “revenge” against people protesting the new law.
So far, 17 people have been killed and thousands detained in two weeks of protests in Uttar Pradesh, while unverified videos of police attacking protesters, including children, with batons and raiding homes have been shared widely on social media.
The new law, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India as undocumented migrants to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
CAA does not apply to Muslims, leading to criticism of it violating India’s secular constitution and aimed at marginalising India’s 200 million Muslims, who constitute nearly 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people.
The nationwide demonstrations against the law follow a contentious process in the northeastern state of Assam meant to weed out foreigners living in the country without the required documents.
Nearly 2 million people, about half of them Muslim, were excluded from an official list of citizens – called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be considered foreign.
India is building a detention centre for some of the tens of thousands of people who the courts are expected to ultimately determine have entered without documents.
Addressing an election rally in capital New Delhi, Modi contradicted Home Minister Amir Shah, saying that there had been no discussion yet of whether to execute a nationwide NRC.
In several public statements, Shah has pledged to roll out the process nationwide.
Modi also denied the existence of a detention centre, accusing the Congress party of spreading fear that Indian Muslims would be jailed there.
Accusing the main opposition Congress party of condoning the violence by not condemning it, Modi said his opponents were “spreading rumours that all Muslims will be sent to detention camps”.
“There are no detention centres. All these stories about detention centres are lies, lies and lies,” he said.
Assam has six detention centres holding more than 1,000 alleged “illegal” migrants, and plans another 11. India’s junior home minister has told parliament that 28 detainees have died in the camps in recent years.
Shah’s ministry in June issued a “2019 Model Detention Manual” to states, asking them to set up camps in major entry points. Two centres were planned near the cities of Mumbai and Bengaluru.
The protests against the law began in Assam, the centre of a decades-old movement against migrants, before spreading to predominantly Muslim universities and then nationwide.
On Monday, the Congress party held a silent protest in the capital against the new law, a day after Modi accused the opposition of pushing the country into a “fear psychosis” over the legislation.
The protest, led by the Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, came at a time when tens and thousands of demonstrators have taken to India’s streets to call for the revocation of the law.
The party’s former president, Rahul Gandhi, urged young people in New Delhi to join the protest at Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi.
“It’s not good enough just to feel Indian. At times like these it’s critical to show that you’re Indian and won’t allow to be destroyed by hatred,” Gandhi tweeted.
Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said the Congress and other groups have filed nearly 60 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law in in the Supreme Court, which has asked the federal government to respond to the pleas by mid-February.
The backlash over the citizenship law represents the first major roadblock for Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda since his party’s landslide re-election earlier this month.
Authorities have so far taken a hardline approach to quell the protests, evoking a British colonial-era law banning public gatherings.
Internet access has been periodically blocked in some states, and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has asked broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, columnist Sadanand Dhume said the law is the “single-most divisive thing that Modi has done” since he first came to power in 2014.
“It has polarised the country not merely in terms of Hindus and Muslims, but I think more importantly between those Indians who, irrespective of their faith, see it as a challenge to India’s secular foundations and BJP supporters who see it as a great humanitarian gesture to religious minorities in three [neighbouring] countries,” said Dhume.
Protests against the law also came amid an ongoing crackdown in Muslim-majority India-administered Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region stripped of its semi-autonomous status and demoted from a state into a federal territory in August.
More protests are planned across the country on Monday, including in Bengaluru and Kochi cities.