Protests against a divisive new citizenship law raged in India for the fourth day yesterday as Washington and London issued travel warnings for northeast states following days of violent clashes.
Many in the far-flung, resource-rich northeast fear the new legislation will grant citizenship to large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring countries, who they accuse of stealing jobs and diluting the region’s cultural identity.
Though a relatively calm day in the northeast region, protests turned violent in West Bengal state, a hotbed of political unrest.
Protesters torched five empty trains, 10 buses and a rail station and continued to block road and disrupt rail services in different parts of the state for the second day, reported our New Delhi correspondent.
The five trains were set on fire at Lalgola rail station in Murshidabad district. No one was injured. Protesters also blocked railway tracks at a number of stations in Murshidabad and Howrah districts disrupting service.
The National Highway 34, which connects north and south Bengal, was also blocked. A number of vehicles were seen burning on roads during the agitation.
Concerned over the escalating violence, state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, herself a severe critique of the Citizenship Act, appealed for calm and warned tough action against those indulging in violence.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says the he amended citizenship law will save religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians from persecution in neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan by offering them a path to Indian citizenship. But critics say the law, which does not make the same provision for Muslims, weakens the secular foundations of India.
Barring a peaceful 10-hour flash strike in Nagaland that crippled normal life, the situation in northeastern states yesterday remained largely peaceful leading to easing of curfew in Guwahati and Shillong, Meghalaya state capital.
In Guwahati, which saw violent protests against the contentious law, curfew was relaxed from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm local time, a police spokesperson said. Schools and offices, however, remained shut.
Anticipating further unrest, authorities extended an internet ban across Assam till Monday. Most shops were shut and anxious residents were seen stocking up supplies yesterday.
Schools and colleges in Nagaland remained closed and markets were shut and most vehicles remained off the roads as the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) enforced a six-hour strike.
Several thousand protesters rallied in the capital New Delhi yesterday evening, urging Modi’s government to revoke the law, some holding signs reading: “Stop Dividing India”.
In India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh state, in the north of the country, students at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), a prominent institution set up in 1920, protested against the citizenship law and were mobilising Muslims via doorstep invitations for a bigger protest today.
Protests were also staged in several other towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh, including in the Hindu holy city of Prayagraj, whose former name Allahabad was changed by the state’s Hindu nationalist government in 2018.
The protests has already postponed a summit between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe.
Yesterday, the United States, Britain and Canada warned their nationals to “exercise caution” if travelling to the wider northeast region.
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.
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.