At least 20 people, including 8-year-old boy, killed as nationwide protests against citizenship law continue in India.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called a meeting with his council of ministers on Saturday as the death toll in violent clashes between the police and protesters since last week reached 20.
People have been protesting across the country since the parliament passed a controversial citizenship law which critics say discriminates against Muslims and undermines the country’s secular constitution.
“The PM has called a meeting of the full union council of ministers to assess the prevailing situation due to violent protests in many parts of the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act,” a senior government official, requesting anonymity, told Reuters News Agency.
An eight-year-old boy and four protesters died after suffering bullet wounds when demonstrations turned violent on Friday in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the state’s police spokesman Shirish Chandra told AFP news agency.
The boy died in a stampede during a large rally of 2,500 people in the holy city of 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,” Chaudhary said.
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.
‘Not a sectarian protest’
The controversial act is an amendment to a 1955 piece of legislation granting citizenship to “persecuted” minorities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from neighbouring countries – but excludes Muslims.
The backlash against the law pushed through Parliament by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government marks the strongest show of dissent since he was first elected in 2014.
Al Jazeera’s Subina Shrestha said that more protests are being planned in the capital New Delhi for Saturday, despite government’s use of curfews and a draconian regulation to shut down protests.
“What is interesting is that a lot of the violence and deaths that have been happening have been in areas governed by the BJP or BJP-aligned parties,” she said, speaking from the Indian capital.
“Some members of the coalition government have been giving out inciting statements, while others in the coalition are saying that this law is ill-timed,” she said, adding that the mass demonstrations across the country have not been “sectarian” in nature.
“A lot of these people are students, civilians who have come to the streets in solidarity with the Muslims. They are now talking about a constitutional crisis, an existential crisis, and the fundamentals of which India’s constitution is based on.”
Rights activists in Uttar Pradesh, India‘s most populous state, said local policemen were conducting raids on their houses and offices to prevent them from planning fresh demonstrations.
Dozens have been injured in violent clashes, many in sensitive parts of Uttar Pradesh, which has long seen clashes between majority Hindus and minority Muslims.
According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), the death toll from Friday’s protests in Uttar Pradesh’s 13 districts has risen to 11.
Discriminating against Muslims
In the northeast state of Assam, locals are angry with the law as it makes it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who settled in India prior to 2015, to obtain Indian citizenship.
In other parts of India, anger with the law stems from it being seen as discriminating against Muslims as it makes religion a criterion for citizenship in a country that has taken pride in its secular constitution.
“This piece of legislation strikes at the heart of the Constitution, seeking to make India another country altogether,” prominent historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in an Indian newspaper, The Telegraph.
“It is thus that so many people from so many different walks of life have raised their voices against it.”
Guha was released from police custody after being arrested for protesting against the law in the southern city of Bengaluru.