NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition Congress Party marked its 135th foundation day on Saturday with a call for nationwide protests against a controversial citizenship law that has divided the country.
Former party President Rahul Gandhi led the campaign in the northeastern state of Assam, where ethnic Assamese have claimed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will make them a minority in their own state.
The act fast-tracks citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who arrived in India before the end of 2014 from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
But critics say the law is discriminatory and goes against the secular spirit of India’s constitution.
“Wherever the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) rules, it spreads hatred,” Gandhi told supporters in Guwahati, Assam’s biggest city.
“The Congress Party will not allow the divisive designs of the Hindu right-wing forces to succeed and will oppose this attempt to divide society,” said Gandhi, who is the son of the party’s president Sonia Gandhi.
In northern India, his sister Priyanka Gandhi launched the party’s campaign in Lucknow, capital of the country’s biggest state Uttar Pradesh.
She condemned local BJP workers for targeting thousands of social activists who came out to protest against the CAA and criticized police “high-handedness” in dealing with protesters, particularly Muslims.
At least 18 people are believed to have died after police opened fire on demonstrators. CCTV footage also shows senior police officials abusing protesters.
Police have denied any wrongdoing.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Friday justified his government’s crackdown, saying that the action has “shocked” every protester into silence.
“Every rioter is shocked. Every troublemaker is shocked,” he said.
However, Priyanka Gandhi claimed “the BJP has poisoned government officials so much that they have forgotten their constitutional duty,”
“Today the country is in trouble. If we do not raise our voice, we will prove to be cowards,” she added.
BJP President and India’s Home Minister Amit Shah blamed the opposition Congress for “spreading rumors” about the CAA. “The Congress and company are spreading rumors that Muslims are going to lose their citizenship,” he said.
“I challenge Rahul Gandhi to show me if there is even a single line in the act regarding the withdrawal of anyone’s citizenship. Don’t misguide and divide people over the CAA.”
Meanwhile, protests continued in cities including Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore.
In New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, more than 200 women have held a sit-in protest for the past two weeks over what they call an “indiscriminate citizenship act.” The demonstration forced authorities to close an adjoining national highway.
“We have been sitting here with our children day and night, and we will not move until the government withdraws the CAA,” said Fatima Begum, a housewife.
Sana Fatima, a student, said that “the BJP regime has acted indiscriminately from day one. The CAA and proposed National Register of Citizens are meant to target Muslim community. For us this is an existential crisis.”
Political analysts say that the CAA and national register are aimed at identifying those who pose a serious danger to the “religious amity of the nation.”
However, the act also has the potential to destroy the religious peace that has existed in India since independence, Subhajit Naskar, an assistant professor of international relations at West Bengal Jadavpur University, said.
He told Arab News that the BJP wants to capture Bengal in the 2021 assembly elections, and the CAA and NRC are being implemented to deprive many Muslims of their citizenship.
“This will polarize West Bengal, which has a sizeable Muslim population,” Naskar added.
“The nationwide outrage proves that secular values in India are still vibrant and alive. The fact that Hindu leaders are using mosques to express solidarity with Muslims indicates that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing the biggest resistance of his political career,” he said.