Tuesday 21 January 2020

India’s ruling party loses key state election amid protests

The election was held amid protests calling for the revocation of the citizenship law.

The election was held amid protests against a new citizenship law (Aijaz Rahi/AP)
The election was held amid protests against a new citizenship law (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

By Ashok Sharma, Associated Press

India’s ruling party has lost a key state legislature election, a setback for the party as it faces massive anti-government protests against a contentious new citizenship law.

According to results announced by India’s Election Commission late on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) yielded power to an alliance forged among the opposition Congress party and powerful regional groups in eastern Jharkhand state, where the voting took place this month.

The election was held amid protests calling for the revocation of the citizenship law, which critics say is the latest effort by Mr Modi’s government to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims.

BJP leaders said on Tuesday that the new citizenship law was not an issue in the Jharkhand election, but Congress party leader RPN Singh said the results were a snub to Mr Modi’s party, which won only 25 of 81 state legislature seats.

The Congress party and its allies won 47 seats, ending the BJP’s five-year rule in the state.

The protests represent a major roadblock for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda since his party’s landslide re-election last spring (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

Since December 2018, the BJP has lost power in five states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

But Mr Modi won a major victory for his party in May national elections. The BJP came to power in 2014, defeating the Congress party.

Mr Modi has defended the new citizenship law and accused the opposition of pushing the country into a “fear psychosis”.

The law allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims.

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to India’s streets to call for the revocation of the law.

Twenty-three people have been killed nationwide since the citizenship law was passed in Parliament earlier this month in protests that represent the first major roadblock for Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda since his party’s landslide reelection earlier this year.

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to India’s streets (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

Most of the deaths have occurred in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where 20% of the state’s 200 million people are Muslim.

The state government is controlled by Mr Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Hundreds of students marched on Tuesday through the streets of New Delhi to Jantar Mantar, an area designated for protests near Parliament.

They walked behind a huge banner that read, “We the People of India.”

Vipul Kumar Chaudhary, a student, said the purpose of the march was to ensure that there was no discrimination on the basis of religion.

“India is a bouquet of people representing different religions. We want to preserve it,” he said.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (AP)

Also on Tuesday, police stopped Congress party leaders Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi from visiting Meerut, a town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh that had seen massive clashes between police officers and protesters on Friday.

They were turned back from the outskirts of Meerut, 45 miles north-east of New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi told reporters.

Mr Modi’s government, meanwhile, announced details on India’s 2021 census, an exercise carried out every 10 years.

Prakash Javadekar, the information and broadcasting minister, told reporters that the census will begin this April, ending with a head count in February 2021 to prepare a national population register.

He said it will be a self-declaration exercise, requiring no residential proof, documents or biometric identification. The country’s current population is around 1.3 billion.

Authorities across India have taken a hard-line approach to quell the protests.

They have evoked a British colonial-era law banning public gatherings, and internet access has been blocked at times in some states.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has asked broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence.

The communication shutdown has mostly affected New Delhi, the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire north-eastern state of Assam.

PA Media

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