Nine people killed in northern Uttar Pradesh state in clashes between police and protesters, officials say, raising death toll in more than a week of unrest triggered by a citizenship law widely seen as anti-Muslim.

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India, December 21, 2019.
Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India, December 21, 2019. (Reuters)

Nine people were killed on Saturday during clashes between demonstrators and police in northern India, raising the nationwide death toll in protests against a new citizenship law to 23, police said.

Uttar Pradesh state police spokesman Pravin Kumar said the nine fatalities increased the death toll in the state to 15 in the protests against the new law, which the demonstrators say discriminates against Muslims.

The "majority of the dead are young people," Singh said. "Some of them died of bullet injuries, but these injuries are not because of police fire. The police have used only tear gas to scare away the agitating mob."

Around a dozen vehicles were set on fire as protesters went amok in the northern Indian cities of Rampur, Sambhal, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnore, and Kanpur, where a police station was also torched, Singh said.

Disquiet has been growing about the law, which was passed by parliament on December 11 and gives people from persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries an easier path to citizenship – but not if they are Muslim.

Revocation of law demanded 

Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist agenda, a claim his political party has denied.

Authorities have scrambled to contain the situation – imposing emergency laws, blocking internet access, and shutting down shops in sensitive areas across the country.

Demonstrators have vowed to keep up their fight until the law is revoked.

"This piece of legislation strikes at the heart of the Constitution, seeking to make India another country altogether," prominent historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in Indian newspaper The Telegraph.

"It is thus that so many people from so many different walks of life have raised their voices against it."

Guha was released from police custody after being detained for protesting against the law in the southern city of Bengaluru.

Protests were held on Saturday in numerous states, including in the cities of Chennai, Gurgaon, and Guwahati.

As day broke in the capital New Delhi, demonstrators held up their mobile phones as torches at India's biggest mosque Jama Masjid in a show of dissent.

In Patna in the eastern state of Bihar, three demonstrators suffered bullet wounds and six were hurt from stone-pelting after clashing with counter-protesters, police said.

At an all-women protest in Assam state's Guwahati city in the northeast – where the wave of protests started amid fears the immigrants would dilute their local cultures – participants said it was time to speak up.

"We came out to fight for our motherland, we came to fight without any arms and ammunition, we will fight peacefully," said Lily Dutta.

'Stampede-like situation'

Since being re-elected this year Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have stripped Muslim-majority Kashmir of its limited autonomy [ key to India's 1947 accession treaty with Kashmir] and carried out a register of citizens in Assam.

The BJP has said it wants to conduct the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide, fuelling fears Muslims – a 200-million minority in India – were being disenfranchised.

BJP's general secretary Bhupender Yadav told reporters on Saturday the party would "launch an awareness campaign" and hold 1,000 rallies to dispel "lies" about the law.

In northern Uttar Pradesh, Muslims make up almost 20 percent of the 200-million population. Police spokesman Shirish Chandra said 10 people died Friday after being shot.

The boy also died Friday in a "stampede-like situation" when 2,500 people including children joined a rally in the holy city of Varanasi, district police chief Prabhakar Chaudhary told AFP.

The unrest had already seen one death in Uttar Pradesh, two in the southwestern state of Karnataka and six in Assam.

Mass detentions

On Saturday, police erected barricades along Delhi's Jantar Mantar, an avenue that in recent years has been a hotspot for protests.

It came after street battles broke out on Friday evening in Delhi with police firing a water cannon and baton-charging protesters, who chanted anti-Modi slogans and threw stones.

Forty people were taken into custody, including at least eight under 18 years old, police said on Saturday, adding that most of them were released.

Sixteen others were arrested over charges of violence, the police spokesman added.

Delhi's chief metropolitan magistrate late Friday had ordered the release of everyone under 18 who was detained.

The leader of a prominent organisation in the Dalit community – the lowest group in the Hindu caste system – who joined the Delhi demonstrators was arrested on Saturday, police added.

On Saturday, distraught families and lawyers waited outside a police station in Old Delhi where nearly dozen people were being held.

More than 1,500 protesters have been arrested across India in the past 10 days, officials said.

Additionally, some 4,000 people have been detained and then released, the officials said.

International condemnations 

Two US Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, denounced the new law on Twitter, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized it at a news conference following the conclusion of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur.

Mahathir said on Saturday that India is a secular state and people's religion should not prevent them from obtaining citizenship.

"To exclude Muslims from becoming citizens, even by due process, I think is unfair," he said.

Following the remark, India's foreign ministry summoned the Malaysian Charge d'Affaires to lodge a complaint. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies