Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a meeting with his council of ministers on Saturday to discuss the ongoing protests over a new citizenship law, as more demonstrators were killed in clashes with police.
"The PM has called a meeting of the full union council of ministers to assess the prevailing situation due to violent protests in many parts of the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act," a senior government official told Reuters news agency.
The meeting was called as at least five more deaths were reported in Uttar Pradesh in the country's north east, bordering Nepal. Four protesters died from bullet wounds when demonstrations involving thousands of people turned violent on Friday, said Uttar Pradesh police spokesman Shirish Chandra on Saturday.
An eight-year-old boy was reportedly killed in a stampede during a large rally of 2,500 people in the holy city of Varanasi, district police chief Prabhakar Chaudhary told the AFP news agency.
According to the Times of India, the stampede was caused by police chasing the crowd.
The total number of protesters killed has reached 23 since violence broke out over the Citizenship Amendment Act that was voted through government last week, and that shows no sign of abating. The bill makes visa applications easier for religious minorities to get citizenship in India from the surrounding Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but excludes Muslim immigrants.
Modi government takes hard-line stance
It is not known what measures Modi, of the Hindu nationalist BJP party that put forward the bill, might discuss, but so far the government has taken a hard-line approach to the protests.
The government evoked a British colonial-era law banning four or more people from meeting up,to stop the protests. The internet has been periodically cut 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 the capital New Delhi, the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire northeastern state of Assam.
The Indian government has interrupted internet services at least 102 times so far this year, according to a public online tracker maintained by the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Center.
The measures have not succeeded in deterring protesters with demonstrations continuing throughout the country. In Gauhati, the capital of the ethnically diverse northeastern state of Assam, women staged a sit-in to protest the law. In New Delhi, police arrested 15 people over violence in the Daryaganj region.
Protesters reacted angrily to the bill, concerned that it threatens India's secular constitution and Indian-Muslim citizenship as well as worries over migration.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Saturday criticized the law. At a news conference at the end of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir said India is a secular state and the religions of people should not prevent them from attaining citizenship. "To exclude Muslims from becoming citizens, even by due process, I think, is unfair,'' he said.
kmm, shs/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)
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