Indian protest death toll reaches 24 as government cuts internet

Protesters are in uproar over a new citizenship law which critics say the law discriminates against Muslims

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At least 24 people have been killed in protests against a contentious citizenship law in India, as authorities suspended internet access in an attempt to quell the growing street protests.

The death toll jumped after demonstrations turned violent on Friday in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, leaving at least 15 dead including an eight-year-old boy, who was trampled.

On Saturday more protests began in cities including Chennai, capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, and Patna in eastern Bihar state. Crowds were also expected again in the national capital New Delhi.

Disquiet has been growing about the law, which was passed by parliament on December 11 and gives people from persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries an easier path to citizenship - but not if they are Muslim.

Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist agenda, a claim his political party has denied.

As the protests, which began in universities across India, spread to the streets, the internet was shut off in areas of New Delhi, the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire state of Assam.

In Aligarh, where police beat students and fired tear gas shells inside a university last week, internet services were suspended for the sixth straight day on Saturday.

Internet services were restored in the northeastern border state of Assam, the centre of a decades-old movement against migrants from Bangladesh and where the protests began last week.

Internet shutdowns are a favoured tactic for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Authorities have interrupted internet services at least 102 times so far this year, according to a public online tracker maintained by the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre.

In 2018, the #KeepItOn coalition, which works with the support of 191 organisations globally, and the nonprofit group Access Now reported that of the 196 internet shutdowns reported from 25 countries, India was responsible for the majority, with 134 incidents — almost 67 per cent of the world’s documented shutdowns.

Since Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government first came into power in 2014, the internet has been suspended more than 360 times.

In northern Uttar Pradesh, Muslims make up almost 20 per cent of the 200-million population.

The state's police spokesman Shirish Chandra told AFP that 10 people had died on Friday after being shot. "All of them were bullet fatalities. We are looking into other cases," he said.

The boy who died was trampled after 2,500 people including children joined a rally in Varanasi, district police chief Prabhakar Chaudhary said.

"When the police tried to quell the protests, these persons ran for cover and a stampede-like situation emerged, in which this boy died," Mr Chaudhary said.

He added that police "exercised complete restraint against the crowds that engaged in attacking them with stones".

The Times of India said the boy was playing in a lane with a friend when they were trampled by a crowd being chased by police.

The unrest has also seen one other death in Uttar Pradesh and two in the southwestern state of Karnataka, while in Assam state in the northeast -- where the wave of protests began last week - six people have been killed and dozens injured.

On Saturday police erected barricades along Jantar Mantar in central Delhi, an avenue that has emerged in recent years as a hotspot for protests.

Police have opened fire during the protests, launched tear gas canisters, charged protesters with batons and detained hundreds of people across the vast nation amid the violence.

But demonstrators have vowed to keep up their fight until the law is revoked.