By Devjyot Ghoshal
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Police fired shots in the air as thousands of protesters took to the streets on Tuesday in the latest clashes in the Indian capital over a new law that makes it easier for non-Muslims from neighboring countries to gain citizenship.
Nationwide opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act – which offers a path to Indian citizenship for religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – has grown since last week, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government appears to have dug in its heels.
“Both my government and I are firm like a rock that we will not budge or go back on the citizenship protests,” Home Minister Amit Shah told the Times Network, which runs TV channels, in an interview.
But critics say the law weakens India’s secular foundations since it does not apply to Muslims, who have been coming out on to the streets in increasing numbers against the legislation.
In Delhi’s Seelampur area, police fired shots in the air and lobbed more than 60 rounds of tear gas to beat back thousands of people protesting against the new law.
Police officer Rajendra Prasad Meena said the demonstration spiraled out of control after some protesters started throwing stones at policemen who were holding them at a barricade.
“Then the situation worsened and we had to fire tear gas,” he said, adding that police fired rounds in the air once to push back the violent mob.
An official at the nearby Jag Pravesh Chandra Hospital said it had received around 10 people, including policemen, with injuries sustained during the protest. Most were discharged, and two referred elsewhere.
Cars were damaged and a wide road strewn with rocks while two motorbikes were set on fire, sending thick smoke into the air.
Groups of youths, some with their faces covered, threw bricks, stones and bottles at police, who retaliated with tear gas and baton charges.
Sahil, a protestor who gave only one name, said the new law had to be withdrawn. “It is against the constitution,” he said, holding up a hand-written poster as the large crowd began dispersing.
Mohammad Daud, the imam of a local mosque who helped calm the confrontation, said it began as a protest against the new citizenship law.
“We should protest against it, and we will protest against it. Neither is this a fight against the police, or a Hindu-Muslim issue. We only have a problem with the government,” Daud said.
There have been growing questions about the stance of the government, led by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party, toward India’s 172 million Muslims, who make up 14% of the population.
The citizenship law follows the revocation of the special status of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, and a court ruling clearing the way for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque razed by Hindu zealots.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said India’s actions in Kashmir and on the citizenship law could drive Muslims from India and create a refugee crisis.
“We are worried there not only could be a refugee crisis, we are worried it could lead to a conflict between two nuclear-armed countries,” Khan told a Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva.
India’s Foreign Ministry said Khan was spreading “falsehoods”.
“Over the past 72 years, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has systematically persecuted all of its minorities, forcing most of them to flee to India,” ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.
Anger with the Indian government was stoked this week by allegations of police brutality at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university on Sunday, when officers entered the campus and fired tear gas to break up a protest.
At least 100 people were wounded in the crackdown which has drawn criticism from rights groups.
Modi told a rally for a state election on Tuesday that his political rivals were trying to mislead students and others to stir up protests.
“This is guerrilla politics, they should stop doing this.”
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA and Promit Mukherjee in MUMBAI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel and Giles Elgood)