Anger against citizenship bill roils India’s cities

Thousands from across India have gathered to oppose the controversial law

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India, December 21, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
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“Long live the revolution” and “We will get independence after fighting” were the chants that rang out on Saturday outside New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Hundreds of female students staged a fresh protest in an unrelenting nationwide uprising against the contentious citizenship law that has seen police storm their university campus.

The protests soon swelled up as male students joined in.

The university has been closed since clashes broke out last weekend but many students reside in the adjacent sprawling Muslim majority neighbourhood of Jamia on the southern edge of Yamuna River.

On Friday, thousands of residents, mostly Muslim Indians from across the country, gathered on the streets after prayers to oppose the act and against the police brutality.

The protests, which have spiralled and spread across the country's Muslim majority cities are a rare sight in recent decades that has seen the downfall of Muslim politics in India.

Tens of thousands of Muslims have hit the streets to reclaim what they say their "rightful place in India".

India's 200-million-strong Muslim population has felt spooked under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government, which plans to bring a countrywide citizens registry to expel "intruders" after the amended law gave immunity to millions of Hindus and other religious groups.

Muslims say the new act will leave many from the community stateless.

Many say Muslims see it as a chance to stand against Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government that has been accused of marginalising the minority community as it pushes with its Hindu-nation agenda.

Across the eastern part of the city, the anger was more palpable with more than 6,000 protesters marching from India’s grandest mosque Jama Masjid, holding Indian national flags and chanting slogans against the new law.

The historic part of Delhi remained the imperial capital under the Mughal rulers for two centuries before it turned into a commercial hub, with a mesh of new roads and old buildings, some dating back to the 18th century.

The 17th century Red Fort stands across the red-stone mosque that is home to city's large Muslim population.

The mosque too was an epicentre of Muslim politics in recent decades but it lost its sheen in the rise of Hindu nationalism.

As thousands marched on the main boulevard after the Friday prayers wearing skull caps, they repeatedly spoke of country's incredible secular fabric, and the brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims.

Many accused Mr Modi of “dividing the people on the basis of religion” and compared the primer with Hitler.

They asked for "Azadi" (freedom) from divisive politics and clapped in unison to demand “freedom from Modi”, in between singing patriotic songs to stress on their Indian-ness, as many held placards declaring "No violence, No Silence, No CAA, No NRC" and "We Are Indians by Blood not by Papers".

The protesters were stopped by heavy deployment of riot police that stood behind a steel barricade.

An array of figures from Indian society, from teenagers to pensioners, joined the protest that remained peaceful throughout the day as people kept reminding each other to stay calm and non-violent.

But, by the evening, hundreds of protesters tried to charge towards the barricades. They were stopped by police with water cannons.

Many protesters hurled stones and set a car on fire as hundreds of baton swinging policemen went on a rampage, beating anyone they could find on the carriageway.

In the aftermath, the streets were strewn with shoes, stones and blood stains as police dragged several people, including eight children, into waiting buses and detained them.

The change the protesters are demanding may remain elusive, but anger over the act is likely to roil India’s cities for some time to come.