India tightens security ahead of protests after Friday prayers

A man reacts during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in India on Dec 26, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian authorities stepped up security in major cities on Friday (Dec 27) and mobile data services were suspended in some places ahead of protests against a new citizenship law.

At least 25 people have been killed in protests across the country since the law, seen as discriminatory towards Muslims, was adopted on Dec 11.

The backlash against the law pushed through Parliament by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the biggest challenge he has faced since he was first elected in 2014.

Violence peaked last Friday as police clashed with protesters in several cities, especially in Uttar Pradesh state, after weekly Muslim prayers, and more protests are expected this week.

With more protests expected this week, the Uttar Pradesh administration banned mobile internet services in many parts of the state, including in the provincial capital Lucknow, the state government said.

In the Uttar Pradesh city of Meerut, about 90km from New Delhi, nearly 3,000 police were deployed, four times more than last Friday, the city's police chief told Reuters. At least five people were killed in the city last Friday.

A Reuters witness saw a riot control vehicle with a tear gas cannon mounted on its roof. A vehicle carrying a water cannon was stationed nearby as several policemen in riot gear kept watch.

"We're working with local politicians, religious leaders and community members to appeal for calm," Ajay Kumar Sahni, Senior Superintendent of Police in Meerut said. "We expect the situation to remain normal."

In the capital of New Delhi, police imposed an emergency law in some parts of the city, forbidding large gatherings, news channels reported. Such prohibitions have been in place in Uttar Pradesh for more than a week.

But despite that, thousands of protesters are expected to gather after Friday prayers in the capital, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Chennai, protest organisers said.

The citizenship legislation makes it easier for people from non-Muslim minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who settled in India prior to 2015 to get Indian citizenship.

Critics say the exclusion of Muslims is discriminatory and that the award of citizenship based on religion is an attack on the secular Constitution.

Muslims make up about 14 per cent of India's population.

The protests come amid the slowest economic growth in more than six years, rising unemployment and growing discontent over several surprise government decisions.

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