Protests against a divisive new citizenship law raged Saturday as Washington and London issued travel warnings for northeast India following days of violent clashes that have killed two people so far.
Many in the far-flung, resource-rich northeast fear the new legislation will grant citizenship to large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, who they accuse of stealing jobs and diluting the region’s cultural identity.
Several thousand protesters rallied in the capital New Delhi on Saturday evening, urging prime minister Narendra Modi’s government to revoke the law, some holding signs reading: ‘Stop Dividing India’.
‘People are not gathered here as Hindus, or Muslims, people are gathered here as citizens of India. We reject this bill that has been brought by the Modi government and we want that equal treatment as is enshrined in our constitution,’ said protester Amit Baruah, 55, a journalist.
Five empty trains were set on fire at the Lalgola railway station in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district on Saturday evening as protesters continued to block road and disrupt rail services in different parts of the state over the amended Citizenship Act, which has seen violent protests in the Northeast, particularly Assam where two people were killed in police firing after thousands descended on the streets in defiance of a curfew, reports NDTV.
Hundreds of people blocked roads in and around the Sankrail railway station in Howrah this morning and set a portion of a railway station complex on fire. They also set a few shops on fire, news agency PTI reported, quoting police sources. ‘Later in the afternoon, they entered the station complex and set the ticket counter on fire. When RPF and railway personnel tried to stop them, they were beaten up,’ a Railway Protection Force official was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
The protests continue despite both chief minister Mamata Banerjee and governor Jagdeep Dhankhar appealing for peace. ‘Don’t block road and rail. Harassment of ordinary public will not be tolerated. Those creating trouble and taking law into their hands will not be spared. Those setting fire to buses, pelting trains and damaging public property will face action,’ Mamata Banerjee said in a fresh appeal to protesters today.
Incidents of violence were reported from Murshidabad and North 24 Paraganas districts, and rural Howrah, police said, reports The Times of India.
The National Highway 34, one of the arterial roads that connect north and south Bengal, was blocked in Murshidabad. Several other roads in the district were also blocked, they said.
In Howarh district’s Domjur area, the National Highway 6 was blocked as protester set tyers ablazed and ransacked several vehicles, the police said.
Huge police contingent has been rushed to the spot to control the situation, they said. Train movements were also blocked in the Sealdah- Hasnabad section of the Eastern Railway.
Agitators are staging sit-ins on the tracks at Shondaliya and Kakra Mirzapur stations of the section since 6.25am, a railway spokesperson said.
Rahul Gandhi of the opposition Congress party has called the law ‘an attempt to ethnically cleanse the northeast’.
Congress leader TN Prathapan on Saturday knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court challenging the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
Prathapan, who is a lawmaker from Thrissur constituency, sought a direction to apply the provisions of the Act and certain other sections to all the victims of persecution who are in the territory of India.
Tensions also simmered in Guwahati in Assam state, the epicentre of the unrest, where medical staff said two people were shot dead and 26 hospitalised late Thursday after security forces fired live rounds.
Friday’s funeral procession of 18-year-old Sam Stafford, who was killed in the firing, was attended by hundreds of angry and distraught mourners who shouted, ‘long live Assam’.
‘We were watching news all day on TV about the protests when my nephew left home in the evening. We asked him not to go but he went with his friends,’ the student’s aunt Julie Stafford said.
Anticipating further unrest, authorities extended an internet ban across Assam till Monday. Most shops were shut and anxious residents stocked up supplies Saturday when the curfew was relaxed during the day.
The Citizenship Amendment Act allows for the fast-tracking of applications from religious minorities including Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims.
Samujjal Bhattacharya from the All Assam Students Union, which has been at the forefront of the protests, said the group would continue its fight against the new law ‘in the streets and in the court’.
Modi and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe postponed a summit that was reportedly due to be held in Guwahati from Sunday, and the United States and Britain warned their nationals to ‘exercise caution’ if travelling to the wider northeast region.
Islamic groups, the opposition and rights organisations say the law is a part of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims.
He denies this and says that Muslims from the three countries are not covered by the legislation because they have no need of India’s protection.
Modi’s right-hand man Amit Shah on Saturday sought to reassure the northeastern states, saying the government would protect their ‘culture, social identity, language and political rights’.
Assam has long been a hotbed of ethnic tensions. In 1983 some 2,000 people, mainly Bengali Muslims, were butchered in what became known as the Nellie massacre.
On Friday university students in Delhi clashed with police, who used batons and tear gas shells to quell the protests.
News Courtesy: www.newagebd.net