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Modi defends Indian citizenship law as death toll mounts

The law gives religious minority members from three neighbouring Islamic countries an easier path to citizenship, but not if they are Muslim

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended his government’s new citizenship law, which has sparked protests that have left at least 25 people dead.

Mr Modi said the Citizenship Amendment Act passed on December 11 “will not change anything” for the Muslim citizens of India, despite critics of the law saying it violates the country's secular constitution by making religion a test for citizenship.

The law gives religious minority members - Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists - from three neighbouring Islamic countries an easier path to citizenship, but not if they are Muslim.

"Muslims who are sons of the soil and whose ancestors are the children of mother India need not to worry," Mr Modi told the crowd of thousands, some of whom chanted his name.

“People who are trying to spread lies and fear, look at my work. If you see any trace of divisiveness in my work, show it to the world,” Mr Modi told a rally for his Hindu nationalist party in New Delhi on Sunday.

At least 25 people have been killed across India in the protests, the highest number in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims make up almost 20 per cent of the 200-million population.

In most places, the demonstrations have been joined by people of all faiths, but Uttar Pradesh is a tinder-box for communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and authorities there have shut internet and mobile messaging services to prevent the circulation of inflammatory material.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful but protesters have also hurled rocks and torched vehicles, while heavy-handed police tactics including the storming of a Delhi University a week ago have fuelled anger.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered late on Saturday in the southern city of Hyderabad. Other protests took place on Sunday, including in Jaipur and Mumbai. Another in favour of the law was held in Bangalore.

More than 1,500 protesters have been arrested across India in the past 10 days, additionally, some 4,000 people have been detained and then released, officials said.

Mr Modi blamed the protests on the actions of his rivals, saying his main opposition, the Congress party, conspired to push the country into a “fear psychosis” by spreading rumours about Muslims being sent to detention camps.

"There are no detention centres. All these stories about detention centres are lies, lies and lies," he said.

“They are trying every tactic to push me out of power,” he said, urging protesters to desist from attacks on police and other violence.

Mr Modi also said that there had been "no discussion" about a nationwide "register of citizens", which many Muslims in India fear is targeted mainly at them.

Home Minister Amit Shah, Mr Modi's close ally, has said repeatedly that such an exercise will take place, including in parliament aimed at removing all "infiltrators" from India.

This year such a register in Assam state left off 1.9 million people unable to prove they or their forebears were there before 1971. They now face possible statelessness.

Assam has six functional detention centres holding more than 1,000 people in the northeastern state, and plans another 11.

The Home Ministry in June issued a "2019 Model Detention Manual" to states, asking them to set up camps in major entry points.

Mr Modi pointed to other work his government had done to improve the lives of citizens.

“Brothers and sisters, in the last five years, our government has built more than 15 million homes for the poor. We didn’t ask anyone what their caste or religion was. We only looked at a poor man’s poverty.”

Demonstrators block a road during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi, India, December 22, 2019. Reuters
Demonstrators block a road during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi, India, December 22, 2019. Reuters

In August, Mr Modi revoked the special status of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, and in November, a court ruling cleared the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque razed by Hindu zealots.

And now, with the CAA, some are questioning the government's stance towards Indian Muslims, who make up around 14 per cent of the country's population.

Updated: December 23, 2019 12:11 PM

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