NEW DELHI: Protesters and university students took to the streets across India on Monday to demonstrate against the newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The center of the protests has been the Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI) where students held a rally for the fifth consecutive day on Monday.
On Sunday evening the agitation turned violent after police entered the campus and used teargas and baton charges to disperse the students, causing injuries to more than 50.
On Monday, the administration suspended classes and shut down the university until the first week of January before asking students to vacate the hostels with immediate notice.
“It was a peaceful protest against the discriminatory citizenship law. But police used unprecedented violence against us, entered our library and girls’ hostel and thrashed students, with many suffering severe injuries. What kind of country are we living in?” Anugya, a law student in Jamia, told Arab News before asking what crime they had committed by “standing with our Muslim friends who feel discriminated against after the passage of the CAA.”
Protests also broke out at the Delhi University campus, with students asking for the CAA to be scrapped and action to be taken against police who had resorted to unprovoked violence at the Jamia campus.
On Monday, the opposition Congress Party came out in support of the protest even as its top leadership — led by Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of the party president Sonia Gandhi — held a sit-in protest in New Delhi to show “solidarity” with the students.
“The country’s atmosphere is bad. Police are entering university to beat up students. The government has tinkered with the constitution. We will fight for the constitution,” she said.
Also on Monday, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), 150 kilometers outside of Delhi in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was shut down until further notice after clashes between students and police on Sunday.
The internet has been suspended in the city and adjoining areas and there were reports of students suffering severe injuries in the night-long raid in the campus, with several forced to leave the hostel and campus overnight.
Amid the growing unrest across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Monday morning that “violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing.”
He exhorted students “not to allow vested interest groups to divide us and create disturbance.”
Modi’s conciliatory statement follows a day after his election speech in the eastern state of Jharkhand where he tried to give a sectarian color to the protests by saying that “those who are indulging in violence can be identified by the color of their clothes.”
The CAA seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists — from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — but excludes Muslims.
Besides the CAA, the Indian government has also announced its intention to bring in the NRC — an exercise to identify illegal immigrants from different parts of the country. Muslims fear that they would be the only victims of the NRC as other religious groups would be protected under the new law.
Political analysts believe that Modi’s main aim with the CAA and NRC is to capture power in eastern India’s biggest state, West Bengal, where a large number of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh live.
The idea is to polarize both the migrant and mainstream Hindus and win the elections in the process.
Bengal has witnessed four days of intense violence since Thursday in some of the Muslim-dominated districts with several from the community expressing their anger against what they call a “discriminatory” law.
On Monday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee led a protest march in the capital city of Kolkata and announced that no matter what happens she will not implement the CAA or the NRC in the state.
“As long as I am alive, we will not implement the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. They can dismiss our government if they want. We will not surrender,” Banerjee said.
Meanwhile, different districts of the neighboring state of Assam continued to witness protests throughout the day, with a curfew in place at night.
The protests also spread to the western and southern states of India with major cities such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Trivandrum, the capital of southern state of Kerala, witnessing a massive mobilization of people against the new law.
“We all took an oath under the constitution of India. We will oppose anyone who tries to destroy our constitution,” Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan said.
Professor Afroz Alam of Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University, said: “When political parties ignore constitutional values, secular spirits and the harmonious heritage of India, it’s the citizens who rise to the occasion to hold their political system accountable to them. Protests across the country against the CAA is a symptomatic example of that.”
“The protests will continue because it affects every citizen who believes that the constitution is sacrosanct,” he said.
Delhi-based political analyst, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, told Arab News: “This is the most serious and biggest political challenge Modi is facing since assuming office in 2014.”
“This government has entered a one way street out of which there is no exit,” Mukhopadhyay said.
“Modi is trying to incite people against Muslims and it reflects in his speech on Sunday. But it seems that the ruling party’s game plan is not working and people from all walks of life are protesting. It’s sheer hubris this government is suffering. Their overconfidence is harming them now,” he said.