Indian police clear anti-government protest over coronavirus

Dozens of people, many of them women, had been staging a sit-in protest since early December against a law seen as discriminating against Muslims

Police in New Delhi broke up the longest-running protest against India's citizenship law on Tuesday, citing a ban on public gatherings because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Dozens of people, many of them women, had been staging a sit-in protest since early December on a street in the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, which became a focal point for opposition to a law critics say discriminates against Muslims.

Hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded the protesters early on Tuesday and told them to leave, Delhi's joint police commissioner, D C Srivastava, said.

"It is a dangerous environment, with this coronavirus, and we urged them to leave," he said.

Some demonstrators resisted the police and at least nine people were detained, six of them women, Mr Srivastava said.

The protesters were removed without violence, he said.

Footage of police taking down tents and billboards at the protest site with bulldozers was shown on TV.

Delhi is under a lockdown until the end of the month to halt the spread of the virus and public gatherings of more than five people are banned.

India's Citizenship Amendment Act, which eases the path for non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries to gain citizenship, passed in December and triggered weeks of sometimes violent protests.

At least 78 people were killed in demonstrations across the country, with a large number of the protests in Delhi leading to clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and has deepened concerns that New Delhi is undermining India’s secular traditions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party denies any bias against India's 180 million Muslims.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the protest at Shaheen Bagh was a thorn in the government's side and there were calls from hardline Hindu groups linked to Mr Modi's alliance, as well as residents of the area, to clear it the sit-in.

India has reported more than 500 cases of coronavirus since the outbreak began, but health experts have warned a sharp increase is imminent.

That risks overwhelming the country's underfunded and crumbling public health infrastructure.