NEW DELHI: Mobile internet was cut on Friday in parts of India’s most populous state and thousands of riot police were deployed as fresh protests erupted in Delhi and Mumbai against a citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim.
Twenty-seven people have died in two weeks of, at times, violent demonstrations after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government made it easier for non-Muslims from three countries to be naturalised.
Coupled with a mooted citizens register, it has stoked fears, including in Washington and the UN rights office, about the marginalisation of Muslims who make up 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people.
Armed policemen patrolled Muslim-dominated areas of the capital as hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the grand mosque in Delhi’s old quarter after Friday prayers.
Riot police and paramilitary troops erected steel barricades on roads leading to the mosque, where violent clashes broke out last week following protests.
On Friday, demonstrators chanted slogans against the government, vowing to keep up the pressure until the law was revoked and plans for the register cancelled.
“They want to drive out the poor, Muslims and those who don’t agree with them,” protester Muntazir Bashir told AFP.
Modi, facing his biggest challenge since storming to power in 2014, said on Sunday that Muslims whose “ancestors are the children of mother India” had nothing to fear.
He has also said that the citizenship law is a humanitarian move, giving refuge to persecuted religious minorities from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
But it has unleashed a wave of protests across the country, and not just by Muslims, with several state governments saying they will refuse to implement the legislation.
In Mumbai, where a string of protests were held on Friday, including one in support of the government, hundreds of police were deployed to prevent unrest and man dozens of checkpoints set up along the city’s roads.
Around 200 people showed up at the pro-government demonstration, clutching flags and posters in favour of the new law.
“We should welcome persecuted Hindus back home without any restrictions,” said Mahindra Shah, an 82-year-old protester.
“Why do Muslims need to come here when Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-dominated?”
Officials in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where 20 percent of people are Muslims, said they have suspended mobile internet and Short Message Services (SMS) in 21 districts out of 75 including the state capital Lucknow.
Access to data on cellphones was only restored in many areas on Tuesday following a week-long cutoff in a country that activists say is the world leader in snapping internet access.
The state, home to India’s best-known tourist site the Taj Mahal, witnessed large-scale clashes last Friday between protesters and police. Nineteen people were killed, mostly from gunshot wounds.
Heavy-handed police tactics have fuelled anger, with many accusing authorities of arbitrary force against dissenters.
The protests in Uttar Pradesh, whose chief minister is a Hindu monk from Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, are among the biggest there in decades.
Police have arrested more than 1,000 people and taken more than 5,000 others in the state into preventive custody, some of them as young as 16 according to media reports.
About 200 people have been ordered to pay compensation for damage caused to public property during the protests, failing which their assets will be confiscated.
More than 100 people have also been booked over social media posts deemed to be objectionable or misleading, with tens of thousands of messages on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms reported.
Authorities are keeping a close eye on foreigners with a Norwegian tourist saying she was told to leave India after participating in a protest in the southern state of Kerala.
This week a German student was also ejected after taking part in demonstrations in the southern city of Chennai, according to media reports.
Photos on social media purportedly of the student, named as Jakob Lindenthal, showed him carrying a placard saying “1933-1945 We have been there”, in reference to his country’s Nazi past.