GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Violent mobs in India’s northeastern state of Assam torched buildings and clashed with police on Thursday, leaving two dead and 11 with bullet wounds, as protests grew over a new citizenship law for non-Muslim minorities from some neighboring countries.
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.
The law seeks to grants Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled the three countries before 2015.
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 as groups of protesters, some numbering several hundred, demonstrated in the streets, defying a curfew imposed on Wednesday.
Ramen Talukdar, superintendent of Gauhati Medical College Hospital, said two people had died from gunshot wounds and 11 others injured, also with bullet wounds.
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.
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 be held elsewhere.
In Tokyo, the Japanese foreign ministry said it is keeping a close eye on the local security situation in Guwahati, but that it has no plan at the moment to make changes to Abe’s trip.
Hostility to illegal migrants has simmered in tea-growing Assam for decades, and resentment has sharpened in recent days despite assurances from the federal government.
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.
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 authorized to speak to the media. “The situation is very bad here.”
Protesters vandalized 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.
More troops have been deployed to Assam to restore peace and mobile internet was suspended in 10 districts, the government said.
A curfew was also to be imposed in parts of the capital city of the neighboring state of Meghalaya, a government official said, because of fears of the law and order situation deteriorating.
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.
The government has said the new law will be followed by a citizenship register that means Muslims must prove they were original residents of India and not refugees from these three countries, potentially rendering some of them stateless.
Members of other faiths listed in the law, by contrast, have a clear path to citizenship.
Reporting by staff in Guwahati, Zeba Siddiqui and Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alex Richardson and Hugh Lawson