A man was killed in clashes with police in India’s northeast on Thursday, amid violent protests over a new federal law that would make it easier for non-Muslim minorities from some neighbouring countries to seek Indian citizenship.
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.
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 against groups of protesters, some numbering several hundred, who were demonstrating in the streets, defying a curfew imposed on Wednesday.
Ramen Talukdar, superintendent of Gauhati Medical College Hospital, said one person had been killed by a gunshot and four others sustained bullet wounds.
In Chabua, a town bordering an Indian air force base, protesters had torched government property, including a post office, a local police official said.
A mob had also set alight the house of local lawmaker Binod Hazarika, from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“They torched it and finished it,” the police official said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media. “The situation is very bad here.”
Hostility to illegal migrants has simmered in tea-growing Assam for decades.
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 canceled flights because of the unrest.
“This is a spontaneous public outburst,” said Nehal Jain, a masters student in communications in Guwahati. “First they tell us there are too many illegal immigrants and we need to get rid of them. Then they bring in this law that would allow citizenship to immigrants,” she said.
The turmoil in Assam comes days ahead of a summit Modi plans to host there for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of his campaign to move high-profile diplomatic events outside Delhi to showcase India’s diversity.
Modi urged calm and said the people of Assam had nothing to fear. “I want to assure them - no-one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow,” he tweeted.
Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that he had no update on whether the summit would go ahead as planned or shifted elsewhere.
More troops have been deployed to Assam to restore peace and mobile internet was suspended in 10 districts, the government said.
The new law is also raising concerns that Modi’s government is pushing a Hindu-first identity for India and fanning fears for the future of Muslims, the biggest minority group.