Indians took to the streets again on Thursday in yet more protests against a citizenship law, a day after pro-government Hindu hardliners staged a show of force complete with horses, drums and batons.
Two weeks of at times violent demonstrations have killed at least 27 people as anti-government protesters have vented their anger nationwide in the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he stormed to power in 2014.
Modi denies accusations that the law, which eases naturalization procedures for non-Muslim minorities from three nations, is part of a master plan to reshape India as a purely Hindu nation.
But coupled with plans for a national register of citizens, it has stoked fears at home and abroad, including in Washington and at the UN rights office, about the marginalization of India’s 200 million Muslims.
On Wednesday, several thousand baton-wielding volunteers from a Hindu hardline group – of which Modi is a lifelong member – held a rally in the southern city of Hyderabad, in a show of support for the government.
Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militaristic group that has long espoused “Hindutva” or Hindu hegemony, marched through the streets beating drums and blowing horns.
The parade, organized before the protests began, saw volunteers ride horses, sing songs, and perform group exercises using lathis – bamboo batons deployed by Indian riot police.
The protests against the citizenship law meanwhile show no signs of going away, although in recent days numbers have been smaller.
Around 2,500 people rallied against the government in the financial capital Mumbai on Thursday, police told AFP, with demonstrators waving flags and carrying banners calling for a boycott of the citizenship law.
Protesters also took to the streets in the eastern city of Kolkata while hundreds of Muslim women demonstrated in the southern state of Karnataka where two people were shot dead by police in protests last week.
While many of the protests have been peaceful, demonstrations have sometimes turned violent with police also accused of a disproportionate response.
In India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh – where 19 people have been killed – the authorities have arrested thousands and sought damages from more than 100 people accused of rioting and destroying public property.
Around 130 people have been ordered to pay nearly 5 million rupees ($70,000) within a week, with officials warning that their properties will be confiscated and auctioned to recover the amount if necessary.
Authorities were bracing for further protests on Friday in Uttar Pradesh, home to a large Islamic minority, and in parts of New Delhi following Muslim prayers.
Mobile internet, which was cut across large parts of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere last week, has been restored, although the cities of Agra – home to the Taj Mahal – and Bulandshahr remain offline.