Deadly clashes across India over citizenship law, Summit with Japan postponed

AFP , Friday 13 Dec 2019

The new law will potentially grant citizenship to huge numbers of immigrants

Protests in India
Muslim demonstrators hold banners and placards as they participate in a peace protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Ahmedabad on December 13, 2019. (AFP)

India and Japan's leaders cancelled Friday a planned summit due to deadly protests in the northeast triggered by anger over a new law that will potentially grant citizenship to huge numbers of immigrants.

Thousands of protestors staged fresh demonstrations meanwhile following several days of running battles with riot police that have left the streets of the region littered with burnt-out vehicles, rocks and other debris.

Other smaller demonstrations took place elsewhere including in the capital New Delhi, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, in Maharashtra in central India, in Kerala and Karnataka in the south and northern Punjab.

Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe had reportedly been due to meet in Guwahati, the main city in the state of Assam and the epicentre of the protests, from Sunday.

Without saying why, India said that both sides had "decided to defer the visit", while Tokyo said the move followed "a report from the Indian side about the situation there."

Many people in India's far-flung northeast, long a seething melting pot of different ethnic groups and religions, fear that the new legislation will grant citizenship to large numbers of Bangladeshi immigrants.

Days of protest have seen police -- backed up by thousands of military personnel -- fire tear gas and baton charge protestors, some of whom hurled stones, torched vehicles, and vandalised property.

On Thursday two people were killed and around 20 were being treated in hospital after police fired live and blank rounds, medical staff said.

The UN human rights office on Friday called on India "to respect the right to peaceful assembly, and to abide by international norms and standards on the use of force when responding to protests."

The internet has been cut in parts of Guwahati -- activists say India is already the world's leading country when it comes to snapping online access -- and many areas have been put under curfew.

As the protest continued, roads were blocked by fallen trees, concrete poles, stones and iron railings. Many cash machines have run out of money and most petrol stations were also shut. And on Thursday night hundreds were stuck at Guwahati airport.

The Meghalaya state government has also cut off mobile internet, with parts of the capital Shillong under curfew since Thursday evening.

Hindu agenda?

Security was increased at the Bangladeshi consulate in Guwahati after a vehicle in the consul's convoy was attacked Wednesday by mobs, the foreign ministry in Dhaka said.

"They can't settle anyone in our motherland. This is unacceptable. We will die but not allow outsiders to settle here," Manav Das, a protester told AFP on Friday.

"We will defeat the government with the force of the people and the government will be forced to revoke the law," said local activist Samujal Battacharya.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) -- approved this week -- allows for the fast-tracking of applications from religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims.

For Islamic groups, the opposition and rights organisations, it is part of Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda to marginalise India's 200 million Muslims. He denies this.

The US State Department on Thursday urged India to "protect the rights of its religious minorities", according to Bloomberg.

The UN human rights office said it was concerned the law "would appear to undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India's constitution".

But many in the country's northeast object for different reasons, fearing that immigrants from Bangladesh -- many of them Hindus -- will become citizens, taking jobs and diluting the area's cultural identity.

The passage of the law sparked angry scenes in both houses of parliament this week, with one lawmaker likening it to anti-Jewish legislation by the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

The chief ministers of several Indian states have said they will not implement the law, including West Bengal's firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee who has called for major protests in state capital Kolkata on Monday.

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