Rights groups say the citizenship law, combined with poor urban development, could lead to the forced eviction of millions of people living in poverty. Meanwhile, Muslim women continue to occupy New Delhi's streets in resistance to the divisive law.

Indian women participate in a women-led protest against a new citizenship law that opponents say threatens India's secular identity, at Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood of New Delhi, India. January 18, 2020.
Indian women participate in a women-led protest against a new citizenship law that opponents say threatens India's secular identity, at Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood of New Delhi, India. January 18, 2020. (AP)

Days after nearly 200 homes were demolished in an informal settlement in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, human rights groups and slum dwellers said they expected more such evictions as a new but divisive citizenship law is enforced across the country.

Police and municipal officials said the homes were built illegally on state land and that residents were undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.

Bengaluru residents said the people were migrants from other Indian states, and that they were evicted without any notice.

The Karnataka state high court has prohibited further evictions and asked the municipal corporation and the police to respond to its queries on the eviction by January 29.

Human rights groups said it was an outcome of tensions around India's new citizenship law, which came into effect on January 10 and lays out a path for citizenship for six religious minorities in neighbouring mostly-Muslim countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Critics say that the omission of Muslims is discriminatory and that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), as well as a planned National Register of Citizens (NRC), target poor Muslims and others who do not have sufficient documentation.

'Not everyone has ID papers'

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as they often live in informal settlements, said Isaac Selva, founder of Slum Jagatthu, a non-profit magazine on slum dwellers in Bangalore.

"Bangalore is full of migrant workers, and a large number of daily wage workers tend to live in slums. Not everyone has ID papers," he said.

"We think more such evictions will take place because of the CAA and NRC, because authorities are being told these people do not have a right to be here."

Nearly two million people –– including Hindus –– were left off a list of citizens released in Assam last year for failing to have adequate documentation after a years-long exercise to check illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

On Wednesday, India's top court gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government four weeks to respond to 144 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has ignited protests across the country.

"A large majority of people living homeless and in informal settlements do not have government-issued documents," said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of non-profit Housing and Land Rights Network in Delhi.

"The current climate in the country has fuelled fears that the lack of adequate documents among large sections of India's urban and rural poor could lead to evictions and destruction of their homes and property," she said.

The rapid growth of Indian cities, combined with unclear land ownership, has triggered the forced eviction of poorer communities over the last two decades, human rights groups say.

At least 11 million people in India risk being uprooted from their homes and land as authorities build highways and airports and upgrade cities, according to HLRN, which said more than 200,000 people were forcefully evicted in 2018.

There are no official figures on evictions.

Muslim women occupy streets in protests

In the Indian capital’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, beside open sewers and dangerously dangling electricity wires, a group of Muslim women in colourful headscarves sat in resistance to the citizenship law.

For more than a month, the women have taken turns maintaining an around the clock sit-in on a highway that passes through their neighbourhood. They sing songs of protest and chant anti-government slogans, some cradling babies, others laying down rugs to make space for more people to sit.

The movement has slowly spread nationwide, with many women across the country staging their own sit-ins.

Through numerous police barricades, women trickle in from the winding arterial alleys of Shaheen Bagh with children in hand, as poets and singers take the makeshift stage, drawing rapturous applause.

The neighbourhood rings with chants of "Inquilab Zindabad," which means "long live the revolution!"

As night draws closer, women as old as 90 huddle together under warm blankets, falling asleep on cheap mattresses.

Nationwide protests have brought tens of thousands of people from different faiths and backgrounds together, in part because the law is seen by critics as part of a larger threat to the secular fabric of Indian society.

"Someone had to tell the government that their black laws won’t be accepted. So, as mothers, we decided to protest," said Najma Khatoon, 62.

Khatoon and other protesters in Shaheen Bagh view the citizenship law as part of a bigger plan by PM's Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government to implement a nationwide register of citizens, which they fear could lead to the deportation and detention of Muslims.

'Modi’s actions have stirred our blood'

Modi and other leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party have repeatedly said Indian citizens won’t be affected by the new law, and that if a nationwide register is ever conducted, there will be no religion column.

The gathering at Shaheen Bagh started with a handful of women appalled by the violence at a nearby Muslim university during protests against the law on December 15.

A common refrain among the women at Shaheen Bagh is that they are there to ensure that secular India plotted out by independence-era leaders remains for younger generations.

What would halt the protests –– short of a revocation of the law by the Supreme Court, where it has been challenged in nearly 60 petitions –– is unclear. But there is no indication the women will up and leave anytime soon.

Leaders from Modi's party have blamed the protests on provocateurs deliberately misleading poor, uneducated people.

The women braving unusually cold winter nights seem undeterred.

"Modi’s actions have stirred our blood," said Asma Khatoon, an octogenarian. "We don’t feel cold anymore."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies