Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday categorically rejected accusations that his government's new citizenship law was anti-Muslim.
The total number of people killed has reached at least 23 since violence broke out over the Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed in parliament last week, and it shows no sign of abating.
The law makes it easier for religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to get citizenship in India, but it excludes Muslim immigrants.
Protesters reacted angrily, concerned that it threatens India's secular constitution and Indian-Muslim citizenship.
Read more: Opinion: India's new citizenship act is unconstitutional
"The law does not impact 1.3 billion Indians, and I must assure Muslim citizens of India that this law will not change anything for them," said Modi at a rally in the capital, New Delhi, adding that his government introduces reforms without any religious bias.
"We have never asked anyone if they go to a temple or a mosque when it comes to implementing welfare schemes," he said.
Modi said the opposition parties were distorting the facts about the citizenship act to weaken his government. The premier singled out the Congress party for conspiring "to push not only New Delhi but other parts of the country into a fear psychosis.''
"They are trying every tactic to push me out of power," he said, urging protesters not to resort to violence.
Read more: India's Modi refuses to budge on citizenship law despite mass protests
Fresh demonstrations were planned for Sunday in New Delhi and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where most of the deaths have occurred.
India is set to hold state elections in Delhi early next year, which could be a test for Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after it swept to power in May.
Government's hard-line stance
Modi's government has so far taken a hard-line approach to quell the deadly protests. To stop the protests, it evoked a British colonial-era law banning four or more people from gathering. Internet access has been periodically blocked in some states, and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked for "strict compliance" from new channels to not broadcast any content that was "likely to instigate violence."
The communication shutdown has mostly affected New Delhi, the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire northeastern state of Assam.
Read more: India: Curfew, internet closures as deadly citizenship protests continue
The measures have not succeeded in deterring protesters, with demonstrations continuing throughout the country.
But after Modi held a meeting with his ministers on Saturday, it appears that the government wants to use a PR campaign to put across its viewpoint on the citizenship issue. Modi's nationalist party reportedly plans to hold more than 200 news conferences to allay concerns that the government is imposing a Hindu supremacist ideology.
Indian liberals accuse the BJP government of deliberately creating rifts between Hindus and Muslims and emboldening right-wing extremists. Since Modi came to power in 2014, cases of "cow vigilantism" and Muslim killings by radical Hindus have increased manifold in the country.
Read more: India struggles with religious lynchings
shs/ng (AP, Reuters)
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