NEW DELHI (AP - AFP) — Hundreds of demonstrators perched themselves on the steps of an iconic mosque in the Indian capital on Friday to protest against a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim immigrants.
Demonstrators carried placards and shouted slogans accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government of pursuing policies aimed at forcing people to prove their citizenship and putting Muslims and other people from marginalized communities at risk
The protest at the 17th century mosque, Jama Masjid, was led by Chandrashekhar Azad, leader of the Bhim Army, a political party of Dalits who represent the Hinduism’s lowest caste.
“We will continue protest against the law till repealed,” Azad said as he and hundreds of his supporters read out the constitution’s preamble, which says there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion.
Azad was arrested on Dec. 21 after leading a similar protest at the steps of the mosque. He was accused of instigating violence as the protest ended in a clash between the protesters and the police. A New Delhi court ordered his release from jail on Thursday. The court asked him to leave the capital within 24 hours of his release and to stay out of the city for four weeks.
The cleric of Jama Masjid made announcements before Friday prayers that commented on 16 Muslims who were killed in Uttar Pradesh last month during protests against the new law.
“The lives of Muslim youth lost in Uttar Pradesh violence shouldn't go to waste,” Syed Ahmed Bukhari announced to a congregation of thousands. He added people must “raise their voice against the law in a peaceful way.”
The new citizenship law provides a path to naturalization for immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, unless they’re Muslim. It has triggered nationwide protests and clashes with police that have led to 23 deaths.
The nationwide protests have brought tens of thousands of people from different faiths and backgrounds together, in part because the law is seen as part of a larger threat to the pluralistic social fabric of Indian society. Thousands of Hindus, too, have joined the protests to assure minority Muslims that they are not isolated.
Modi's party downplays the protests, saying they are orchestrated by opponents.
Meanwhile, hundreds of women continued with a sit-in on a road side in New Delhi, braving freezing temperatures and attempts of law enforcement agencies to break them up for almost a month. Emulating their example, women across the many Indian states and small towns have carried out similar sit-ins in protest against the law.
Also Friday, the Congress party, which is the governing party in northern Punjab state, adopted a resolution in the state legislature demanding scrapping of the controversial law, known as the Citizenship Amendment Act.
"The CAA enacted by Parliament has caused countrywide anguish and social unrest with widespread protests all over the country,’’ the resolution said.
On Tuesday, the southern Indian state of Kerala became the first to legally challenge the new law. In a petition to the Supreme Court, the state government said the law violates the secular nature of India's Constitution, and accused the government of dividing the nation along communal lines.
Defiant women who have been blocking a New Delhi highway for more than four weeks in protest against a bitterly disputed citizenship law have inspired thousands across India to copy their challenge to the Hindu nationalist government.
Supported by volunteers who bring biryani meals, chai and blankets, groups have started occupation protests in about 20 cities across the country of 1.3 billion people to demand the repeal of the law that opponents say is anti-Muslim.
Nearly all pay tribute to the 200 grandmothers and housewives and students who sit and sleep across the main road in the Shaheen Bagh district of Delhi, fighting a law that would give passports to "persecuted" religious minorities from three neighbouring countries but only non-Muslims.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in rallies across India since parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11.
Many of India's 200 million Muslims fear the government is getting ready to draw up a national citizenship register that could strip them of their nationality, though New Delhi denies this and calls the law a "humanitarian" gesture.
Though at least 27 people have died in violence around some demonstrations, protesters have taken over parks and streets in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh states as well as two new occupations in Delhi.
Srijan Chawla, a student protest leader in Mumbai, said "Shaheen Bagh has inspired a lot of women in this country to go on the streets and protest. Be it Kolkata, be it Delhi, be it here in Mumbai."
Hundreds of protesters have spent nearly three weeks on public land in Gaya in Bihar. A huge poster of Mahatma Gandhi hangs over one entrance.
More than 10 other non-stop protests are taking place in the eastern state, including at Sabzi Bagh near the capital Patna.
"It is like another Shaheen Bagh," said Afzal Imam, a former mayor of Patna.
"We cannot sit silent at home when the government is hellbent on stealing our citizenship," said Shagufta Amin an activist at Sabzi Bagh, where weekend crowds swell to thousands.
- 'Like a mountain' -
The government in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state is fiercely loyal to right wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has cracked down on protesters. Many of the 19 people killed there were allegedly hit by police bullets. Some 6,000 people were detained for taking to the streets.
Hundreds of women camped in a park in Varanasi, Modi's constituency, face eviction notices after police filed a case for "disobedience".
"This protest is like a mountain, we will not move from here until our demands are met," Nasreen Zafar, one of the women, told reporters.
In the central city of Indore a protest by hundreds of people in a central park has also faced police attempts to evict them.
Some opposition ruled states have quietly encouraged the protesters though.
In West Bengal, hundreds of supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress party camp out on a road in the capital Kolkata. Police protect some 150 women occupying a park.
Political commentator Manisha Priyam said the protests signalled that Indians wanted to defend the equality and justice enshrined in the constitution and shattered stereotypes about Muslim women.
"Muslim women would not normally come out on streets to protest but now they are leading the fight for equality and justice," Priyam told AFP.
While Hindus and other religions have joined the protests, the public has not always appreciated the disruption to their lives however.
Delhi commuters increasingly complain about the Shaheen Bagh women who have caused huge morning and evening traffic jams.
"We are for the right to protest but blocking a road and holding up commuters for over a month is as obnoxious as the condemned law," said Delhi resident Mihir Tripathi.