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Why Protests Have Been Raging For Days In India

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Protests have been raging across India for days.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

CORNISH: In response, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has deployed troops, set a curfew and disrupted internet service. These protests stem from a new citizenship law that demonstrators worry could threaten India's Muslim minority.

Now here to put these events in context is Milan Vaishnav. He's a senior fellow and director of the South Asian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to the studio.

MILAN VAISHNAV: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Let's just set the stage here with the law itself. What is it, and why is it causing such consternation?

VAISHNAV: So the Citizenship Amendment Act, as it's formally called, provides expedited citizenship to illegal migrants who land up in India who originate from one of three neighboring countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Now, what's notable about the bill is that it provides a pathway to citizenship for a wide variety of religious groups, save for one, namely Muslims.

CORNISH: Help us understand the range of demonstrations here. Who's protesting, and why?

VAISHNAV: So Audie, there are really two different types of protests going on. There are the protests we're seeing in places like New Delhi and Mumbai and Kolkata, which are really against the discriminatory nature of this new bill. They feel like it violates the secular foundations of the constitution. There are a second set of protests happening primarily in the northeastern part of India. This is a part of India which is subject to a lot of migration from neighboring Bangladesh, and they don't want any foreign migration. They're worried that that's going to put at risk their local culture, their identity, their ethnicity and language.

CORNISH: When you speak to protesters in India - I don't know what kind of side they may be on, but give us some context. What are you hearing about what it's like to be in the middle of some of these protests?

VAISHNAV: So I was actually speaking with a friend today who was part of a peaceful protest happening in central Delhi.

CORNISH: Against the law?

VAISHNAV: Against the law - on grounds that it violated equal protection, that it was discriminating on the basis of religion - and was actually detained by the police. And what was interesting is that the police sort of said, you know, we sort of have to go through these steps to do this because we're under orders of doing so. But they ended up taking selfies with the cops and being released just hours later.

CORNISH: This is at odds with the kind of imagery that we're seeing in the news. Is there concern about these protests moving beyond peaceful in some areas of the country?

VAISHNAV: Well, this anecdote is certainly not representative. We've seen violence break out in a number of places. In some cases, protesters have gotten violent. In some cases, the police have used excessive force. But you know, this is something which started very much on college campuses. And what's interesting to see is how quickly it spread. It spread throughout cities, even towns and rural areas. It started on historically Muslim campuses. It's now encompassed a wider swath of the Indian population.

CORNISH: Are these protests likely to have any effect on implementation of this law? Could the government dial back?

VAISHNAV: So it's really unlikely, in my view, that the government is going to walk away from this law that they have made a priority for many years. This was actually a bill they introduced in 2016 but couldn't get through the previous Parliament. But what is at stake is how this law interacts with another objective of the government, which is the creation of a nationwide citizens registry. And that's really where a lot of the disaffection comes from - is that if you were going to create a citizens' registry but you were going to treat Hindus and Muslims fundamentally differently, what's going to happen to this huge minority population?

So it's possible - and we're already seeing some signs of this - that the government is going to walk away from its pledge to do this nationwide citizens' register.

CORNISH: Milan Vaishnav, he's a senior fellow and director of the South Asian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Thank you for your time.

VAISHNAV: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.