- - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the passing of a contentious new law earlier this month that outraged critics, who say the legislation will exclude millions of Muslims from citizenship in India — even as Mr. Modi touted it as an attempt to help minorities and enhance security in the South Asian nation.

With the law now triggering massive anti-government protests in several Indian cities that have resulted in more 20 deaths and featured a lockdown on internet in some areas, India’s most popular prime minister in a generation is increasingly on the defensive.

“I must assure Muslim citizens of India that this law will not change anything for them,” Mr. Modi said at a rally in New Delhi this week, echoing the message on Twitter in an attempt to calm tensions in the nation.

“[The law] does not affect any citizen of India of any religion,” Mr. Modi said. “No Indian has anything to worry [about].”

While Mr. Modi has a vast base of supporters who are championing the new law, there are many in India who don’t believe the prime minister, and some who say the citizenship law will trigger a widening political fallout for Mr. Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On Dec. 11, the Indian legislature passed the law fast-tracking Indian citizenship to immigrants from three South Asian countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — as long as they profess to belong to one of six different religious groups: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians.

Critics note that Muslims are notably absent from the faiths recognized by the law, which also says immigrants must also profess that they first arrived in India prior 2015.

The law sets out to allow anyone who qualifies to be given citizenship without any documentation, according to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah.

However, Muslims must produce paperwork showing they have lived in India since 1971. It is a requirement that some analysts say millions of Muslims who have lived in the nation for decades — or even for generations — will not be able to meet.

Mr. Modi has said the law is intended to help religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are living in India and facing religious persecution. The prime minister has also sought to justify the law as vital for India’s national security.

With widespread protests against the law mounting during recent weeks, critics claim the legislation fits within a broader effort by the Modi government to destroy Indian secularism and establish a Hindu homeland.

They assert that secularism is well established by India’s constitution, but that Mr. Modi and the BJP have sought increasingly during recent years to favor Hindus over Muslims. Hindus make up roughly 80% of India’s population of 1.3 billion people, with Muslims comprising about 13%.

The critics point to Mr. Modi’s move over the summer to strip the territory of Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, while encouraging Hindus from other Indian states to relocate there.

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India with a Muslim majority.

With regard to the new citizenship law, the critics claim it will give Muslims second-class status across all Indian states.

“The law will apparently make Muslims noneligible for public offices, government schemes and will scrap their right to vote,” said Ajay Gudavarthy, a professor at the Center for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist voters are happy. Because this law makes them feel that now Muslim will be deported,” he added. “India will become a Hindu nation.”

With the new legislation having been pushed through by the BJP with relative ease, analysts say Mr. Modi has been was caught by surprise at the scale of backlash to the new law.

Some have called the current protests the greatest challenge to the prime minister’s administration since Mr. Modi won a landslide victory in elections in 2014 and won reelection this spring.

For the past two weeks, violent demonstrations, led by opposition parties and students, have broken out in nine states.

Law student Minhajuddin, 26, lost his left eye when police stormed his New Delhi campus to crush protesters, attacking them with batons, tear gas and bullets.

“The police entered into the university library, where I was reading,” the law student recalled. “They started beating students, shot tear gas, and hit me too. I cannot see anything from my left eye since then.”

As protests have grown in New Delhi, the government has shut down access to internet, cellphone and texting services in some areas. Other cities have seen complete lockdowns and curfews, with the Indian Army deploying to keep order.

The situation is particularly acute in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, where locals say they are protesting because they fear that large numbers of immigrants who have arrived over recent decades will now become citizens and change the ethnic balance of the states.

The government’s response to the protests has been biting, the locals say.

Joydeep Ghose, a 24-year-old student from the city of Guwahati in Assam works in a fast-food restaurant to earn money to pay for his studies. “The internet is down, and we are not allowed to go outside of our homes,” he said. “I do not know how long will I be able to survive and keep up my studies.”

Mr. Modi, meanwhile, has blamed Muslims for the unrest, despite indications that the protests are drawing participation from individuals from across all ethnic and religious lines, and social classes.

“Those who are protesting, you can identify them [by] their clothes,” the prime minister said in remarks soon after the protests first broke out, referring to traditional Indian Muslim attire.

Some analysts believe the citizenship law is likely to be struck down by the Indian Supreme Court on grounds it violates the Indian constitution.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenges to the measure in mid-January, although it remains to be seen how quickly a ruling may come.

“The Indian constitution does not discriminate on the basis of religion,” said Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate of the Indian Supreme Court. “But Narendra Modi government has made a law to discriminate its citizen on the basis of their religion.”

Some argue Mr. Modi is playing to his own supporters by supporting the law, and may have even anticipated all along that the it could be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Ram Naresh Gupta, a 56-year-old real estate dealer based in Ghaziabad, a city not far from New Delhi, says he’s thrilled about the law. “Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims have been living in this country illegally for the past several years feeding on our resources,” Mr. Gupta said. “Now, this law will kick them outside of the country, and will bring more Hindus and Sikhs in the country.”

But there is also concern among some Modi supporters over political blowback.

In spite of the prime minister’s reelection earlier this year, his party is suffering losses in some areas.

The BJP conceded defeat in a local elections in the state of Jharkhand on Monday, a development that followed other losses in elections in the states of Haryana and Maharashtra in October.

While the big-picture politics plays out in the backdrop, many say they are worried about the Modi government’s overall posture toward citizenship issues — specifically with regard to the government’s so-called “citizenship register.”

Critics say the initiative is an attempt to register citizens and detain those who cannot prove they are legal. The government earlier this year tried to implement the register in the state of Assam and left almost 2 million people off the list, creating an uproar among residents in the state.

Mr. Shah, the Indian home minister and Mr. Modi’s second-in-command, said has said the government still intends to create the register, although Mr. Modi, himself, has denied such reports.

Critics say they expect the register will go forward and claim detention centers are already being built by the government.

“The new citizenship law and the register both are interconnected things,” said Vrinda Grover, a human rights activist and lawyer. “With such a law in effect, every single Indian has lost their citizenship and has to prove from scratch again.”

“The register marks Muslims as doubtful citizen,” he added. “And the law does not give them any way to become a citizen again.”

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