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Two protesters shot dead during riots over contentious new citizenship law in Assam, India

Two protesters have been shot dead by police in the northeastern Indian state of Assam during unrest over a new law denounced as anti-Muslim. Thousands of troops have been deployed to the northern region to deal with widespread rioting over the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which offers citizenship to people of all faiths — other than Islam — fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries.

On 12 December, security forces fired on protesters who had defied a curfew to march on the streets of Guwahati, torching vehicles and setting railway stations ablaze. The deaths will serve only to inflame the crisis, with rioting spreading ever farther afield since the contentious citizenship amendment bill was approved by the upper house of parliament on Wednesday.

“We were coming back from the actual ground where the big procession took place and suddenly six vehicles … stopped nearby and they threw a stun grenade to disperse the protestors,” Mehraj Khan, whose friend was one of the young men killed, told CNN. “As soon as they threw the stun grenade, they switched off their car light and … started firing.”

Assam is one of India’s most multi-ethnic states as well as one of the poorest. Among the residents are Bengali- and Assamese-speaking Hindus, and a medley of tribespeople. A third of its 32 million residents are Muslims, the second-highest number after Indian-administered Kashmir.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim MP, told The Times the new legislation was “worse than Hitler’s laws”. He tore up a copy of the bill during a heated debate in parliament this week.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, said in a statement that the bill’s passage was “a dark day in the constitutional history of India”. She added: “It marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism.”

The CAB has enraged India’s 200 million Muslims, whose leaders have denounced it as further evidence of discrimination by the government of Narendra Modi, which has pursued a Hindu nationalist agenda since it took power five years ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have described the bill as a means of protecting vulnerable groups from persecution, but critics say the true target is India’s minority Muslim population and risks undermining the country’s secular constitution.

The riots follow the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which borders Bangladesh, when people were forced to prove that they had lived in India before 1971, when millions of refugees, most of them Muslims, fled into India during the war with Pakistan. Almost two million failed the test and now face deportation and being rendered stateless. A huge detention centre is being built in Assam to house thousands of illegal migrants pending deportation. Nine more such centres are planned throughout the state. The government is planning more nationwide.

Taken together, the NRC and CAB have “the potential of transforming India into a majoritarian polity with gradations of citizenship rights,” sociologist Niraja Gopal Jaya told BBC.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which has played a prominent part in the protests, is organising a hunger strike which hundreds of people have joined. The union said in a statement: “We will intensify our protest calendar with each passing day until this bill is not taken back by the government. This is not acceptable to us in Assam or even the people of the north-east. This bill has a communal agenda. They want to polarise the whole population in the name of Hindu and Muslim.”

“We want the government to roll this bill back before the President signs it or else Assam will burn,” Jugal Barman told The Guardian. “This will turn into Kashmir one day.”

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