Violent mobs in India’s northeastern state of Assam torched buildings and clashed with police yesterday, leaving two dead and 11 with bullet wounds, as protests grew over a new citizenship law for non-Muslim minorities from some neighbouring countries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has said the Citizenship Amendment Bill, approved by parliament on Wednesday, was meant to protect minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The law seeks to grants Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled the three countries before 2015.
But thousands of protesters in the state of Assam, which shares a border with Bangladesh, say the measure would open the region to a flood of foreign migrants.
Others said the bigger problem with the new law was that it undermined India’s secular constitution by not offering protection to Muslims.
Police in Assam’s main city of Guwahati fired bullets and tear gas as groups of protesters, some numbering several hundred, demonstrated in the streets, defying a curfew imposed on Wednesday.
Ramen Talukdar, superintendent of Gauhati Medical College Hospital, said two people had died from gunshot wounds and 11 others injured, also with bullet wounds.
Indian news channel NDTV said the police firing caused the death of the protesters.
Earlier yesterday, the government had extended the suspension of internet services in 10 districts of Assam for another 48 hours, and deployed army personnel in four areas where clashes between protesters and police were witnessed.
Internet has been suspended in Tripura since Tuesday. A curfew was also to be imposed in parts of the capital city of the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, a government official said, because of fears of the law and order situation deteriorating.
Five columns of the Army were conducting flag marches in Guwahati, Tinsukia, Jorhat and Dibrugarh, officials said. Several flights and trains to and from Assam have also been cancelled.
Asom Gana Parishad headquarters in Guwahati’s Ambari area was attacked by protestors and vehicles parked outside were vandalised, police said.
Police said they had to open fire in Lalung Gaon area in Guwahati when stones were hurled by protestors opposed to the bill.
Powerful All Assam Students Union, which had spearheaded prolonged violent agitation against illegal immigrants in late 1970s till 1985, and peasants’ outfit Kisan Mukti Sangarsha Samiti called a gathering at Latashil playground in the city, which was attended by hundreds of people.
Notwithstanding the curfew, several prominent personalities from Assam’s film and music industry, including icon Zueen Garg, joined the gathering along with college and university students.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal have betrayed the people of Assam by ensuring passage of the bill,” AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya said at the meet.
Leaders of the AASU and the North East Students’ Organization (NESO) said they will observe December 12 as ‘Black Day’ every year in protest against the passage of the bill in parliament.
Modi yesterday took to the twitter to assure that he and his government were “totally committed to constitutionally safeguard the political, linguistic, cultural and land rights of Assamese people as per the spirit of Clause 6” of the 1985 Assam Peace accord. He also posted the comments in Assamese language.
A complete shutdown hit Assam’s Kamrup district yesterday with offices, schools, colleges and shops shut and no transport plying as all major roads.
Tea garden workers stopped work in Lakhimpur and Charaideo districts and also at Numaligarh in Golaghat district and some areas in Tinsukia district.
Protesters vandalised four railway stations in Assam and tried to set fire to them, a railway spokesman said. Train services were suspended, stranding scores of passengers. IndiGo said it had cancelled flights because of the unrest.
In a major reshuffle, the Assam government yesterday replaced Guwahati Police Commissioner Deepak Kumar and Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Mukesh Agrawal in the state.
Former Assam Chief Minister and Asom Gana Parishad leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta said the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a “divisive tool” that will damage the composite culture of the northeast and must be immediately scrapped.
The two-time Assam chief minister alleged the bill has been brought in to create a Hindu-Muslim divide.
He said Assam will continue to “burn” if the Narendra Modi government does not realise the seriousness of the situation and respect the sentiments of the people.
Mahanta also cautioned the Central government that the situation in Assam may take a “dangerous turn” and any delay in taking the right decision may cause unimaginable harm to the region.
According to Mahanta, the current situation in Assam is worse than the early 1980s when the Assam movement led by him was at its peak. Over 600 student leaders lost their lives during the agitation between 1979 and 1985.
The Aligarh Muslim University Teachers Association (AMUTA) dubbed the day of passage of the bill by the parliament as “one of the darkest days” in the history of independent India.
The AMUTA passed a resolution stating that the passing of the bill marks a “defeat for justice by the use of numbers game by the ruling party”.