Fresh clashes in India as death toll hits nine

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Fresh clashes between Indian police and demonstrators erupted on Friday after more than a week of deadly unrest triggered by a citizenship law seen as anti-Muslim.

Three protesters were shot dead on Thursday, taking the death toll to nine in the wave of anger that is emerging as a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The law making it easier for persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship but not if they are Muslims, has stoked fears that Modi wants to remould India as a Hindu nation, which he denies.

Fresh clashes erupted in northern Lucknow Friday when police halted a few hundred people on their way to a planned protest, with security forces firing tear gas and charging with batons, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

In Delhi, a tense situation developed as an AFP reporter estimated thousands of people -- some carrying a huge Indian national flag -- rallied inside India’s biggest mosque Jama Masjid and chanted freedom, as riot police looked on.

The protesters, joined by the leader of a prominent group in the Dalit community -- the lowest group in the Hindu caste system -- pushed their way out of the mosque onto the main road and tore down posters of Modi before sitting down on the road at Delhi Gate in the Old Delhi district.

Police open fire 

Tens of thousands hit the streets nationwide on Thursday, with violence erupting in several places including Lucknow, Mangalore in the south, and Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

In Mangalore, security forces opened fire on a crowd of around 200 people after they ignored orders to disperse, killing two people, the spokesman for the deputy commissioner Qadir Shah told AFP.

"They marched towards the busiest area of Mangaluru. This led to lathi (big, wooden sticks) charge. Then the tear gas was fired. When the protestors still didn’t stop, the police had to open fire," he said, using an alternate name for the city.

Four others were in hospital with gunshot wounds, while 28 policemen were injured, medical and police officials told AFP.

Another protester succumbed to gunshot injuries in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, said a doctor who declined to be named, with vehicles and a police post set on fire in one district.

Officers denied opening fire in the city, which is home to a large Muslim minority. Authorities had already detained 3,505 people across the state ahead of the protest and arrested another 112 in Lucknow after the violence, according to the state’s police.

Five people were arrested for "misleading and inflammatory" social media posted, police added.

Elsewhere, there were no major incidents -- although officers bundled hundreds of people onto buses in the capital New Delhi and Bangalore after they defied bans on assembly.

Emergency laws 

Authorities have scrambled to contain the situation, imposing emergency laws, blocking internet access, and shutting down shops and restaurants in sensitive pockets across the country.

In Uttar Pradesh -- home to over 200 million people -- mobile internet and text messaging services were cut in several areas including in Ghaziabad, which neighbours Delhi.

Mobile phone services were also briefly suspended Thursday in pockets of the capital, and access in parts of northeast India -- where the wave of protests began -- was only restored on Friday.

In a strongly worded editorial, the Indian Express Friday said the government must do all it can "to keep the peace" in the country, home to 200 million Muslims.

"But in doing so the world’s largest democracy cannot look like it cannot accommodate its young who disagree, it cannot afford to signal that it is so ill at ease with itself.

"India risks a lot if it begins to be seen as a place where the dissenter’s mind is not without fear."