India has moved thousands of troops into the northeastern state of Assam on Thursday as violent protests erupted against a new law that would make it easier for non-Muslim minorities from some neighbouring countries to seek citizenship.
A curfew was imposed in parts of northeast India, including Assam, after protesters came out on the streets against the bill that they fear will encourage Hindus from Bangladesh to settle in the region.
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Resistance to the bill has been the strongest in the Assam state, where a movement against undocumented immigrants has simmered for decades.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed by parliament’s upper house on Wednesday blocks naturalisation for Muslims from neighbouring countries – a fact critics say violates India’s secular constitution.
“It is constitutionally suspect and legally untenable but let’s see what the Supreme Court does in this case,” said Faizan Mustafa, an expert on constitutional law and vice chancellor at NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has said the CAB is meant to protect besieged minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In Assam, protesters defied a curfew, torching cars and tyres and chanting anti-Modi slogans.
While the streets of Assam’s capital Guwahati were largely calm as troops moved in from neighbouring states, protesters were back on the streets in other parts such as Morigaon, where they set tyres alight.
Mobile internet has been suspended in 10 districts in Assam for 24 hours until 7pm Thursday, the government said in an order, adding that social media platforms could potentially be used to “inflame passions and thus exacerbate the law and order situation”.
“It looks like the government is perhaps planning to send more boots on the ground,” Al Jazeera’s Anchal Vohra, reporting from Guwahati, said.
“The protesters are not giving up, they have blocked many roads and are chanting slogans around burnt tires.
“They say their struggle is to protect their indigenous culture and livelihoods.”
Turmoil in Assam
The turmoil in Assam comes just days ahead of an annual summit there in which Modi plans to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of his campaign to move high-profile diplomatic events outside Delhi to different parts of India, to showcase its diversity.
Protesters attacked the homes of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overnight, blaming them for playing politics in a region with a history of ethnic and religious tensions and by opening the floodgates to more outsiders.
“This a spontaneous public outburst,” said Nehal Jain, a masters student in communications in Guwahati. “First, they tell us there are too many illegal immigrants and we need to get rid of them. Then they bring in this law that would allow citizenship to immigrants,” she said.
The Indian Express said the law, which now only requires presidential assent, unfairly targets India’s 170 million Muslims.
“It is a political signal of a terrible narrowing, a chilling exclusion, directed at India’s own largest minority. India is to be redefined as the natural home of Hindus, it says to India’s Muslims. And that they must, therefore, be content with a less natural citizenship.”
The government has said the new law will be followed by a national citizenship register which will put the onus on Muslims to prove they are original residents of India and not refugees from these three countries, potentially rendering some of them stateless.
Members of other faiths listed in the new law, by contrast, have a clear path to citizenship.