Five people have died, including three after being shot by police, following violent protests in northeast India over a new citizenship law for a fifth straight day, with authorities maintaining internet bans and curfews in some regions.
Tension remained high in Assam state’s biggest city, Guwahati, as three people died in hospital after being shot, while another died when a shop he was sleeping in was set on fire and a fifth after he was beaten up during a protest, the AFP news agency quoted the local officials as saying on Sunday.
Violent protests have raged in Assam since India’s Parliament passed the new law on Wednesday, which allows New Delhi to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants who entered India from three neighbouring countries on or before December 31, 2014 – but not if they are Muslim.
Critics say the law, pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Hindu nationalist government, violates the secular principles of India’s constitution by discriminating against a community.
Old wounds re-opened in Assam
But the new law has also re-opened old wounds in Assam state, a region sandwiched between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar which has long seethed with inter-ethnic tensions and where armed tribal groups are still resisting being a part of India.
Assam has long seen hostility between locals and Bengali-speaking immigrants brought by the British to toil on tea plantations or who flowed in around Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence.
Years of agitation driven by student organisations that included the 1983 Nellie massacre – when at least 2,000 people were butchered in six hours – only ended in 1985 with the Assam Accord.
Journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, who works for The Wire website, told Al Jazeera that Assamese people see the new law as a “direct violation” of the 1985 accord.
“The accord was to allow all who had come to Assam until 1971 to be citizens, not December 2014 as this new law says,” she said. “When you try to tinker with that, you’re actually setting off a fire.”
Home Minister Amit Shah on Sunday called again for calm, saying local cultures in northeastern states were not under threat, amid fears the new law will grant citizenship to large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Culture, language, social identity and political rights of our brothers and sisters from northeast will remain intact,” Shah told a rally in eastern Jharkhand state, News18 television network reported him as saying.
Law ‘shatters soul of India’
But for the opposition, rights activists and others in India, the new law is seen as part of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist agenda to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims.
The main opposition Congress party held a rally in capital New Delhi on Saturday, where its president Sonia Gandhi called the citizenship bill “dangerous”.
“Modi-Shah (Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Shah) don’t care. This citizenship amendment bill they brought in recently will shatter the soul of India, like what is happening in Assam and the northeastern states of the country.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Swaraj India party’s founder Yogendra Yadav used a Nazi analogy to explain the implications of the new law.
“It is the beginning of something very pernicious. You first put a star, then you put people in a ghetto and then you finally take them to the end-point,” he said.
“This unfortunately could be the beginning of what could result in a disenfranchisement of a very significant population in India.”
Political leaders in the states of Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal have all said publicly they will not implement the law – leading to a potential conflict with New Delhi.
Rights groups and a Muslim political party are challenging the law in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, train services have been suspended on Sunday after violence in the eastern West Bengal state, with demonstrators torching trains and buses. Fresh demonstrations across India are expected on Sunday over the contentious legislation.
“It seems a long political, social and cultural fight is on the cards for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government,” said Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, reporting from New Delhi.
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