“We have never asked anyone if they go to a temple or a mosque while implementing government schemes,” Modi said Sunday at a rally in the capital of New Delhi. He accused opposition parties of stoking fear and spreading lies about the measure.
The law creates an expedited path to citizenship for migrants of six religions practiced in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh but excludes Islam. Eighty percent of India is Hindu, but the country is home to nearly 200 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
Protests continued across India on Sunday, defying a ban on gatherings. Authorities have also suspended Internet access and shut down public transportation. Large marches in New Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur passed peacefully.
Several of the demonstrations have been led by students and citizens of all faiths, a growing problem for the Modi government. More than 50 legal challenges have been filed against the law in the country’s top court. It is scheduled to hear them in January.
The passage of the law has heightened concerns that Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to turn India into a Hindu state in which Muslims are increasingly marginalized.
“The law does not impact 1.3 billion Indian citizens,” Modi said in his address. “This law will not change anything for them.”
But powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s closest aide, has declared repeatedly that a nationwide citizenship registry, or NRC, for which everyone will be required to provide documentary evidence of citizenship, will soon follow.
“First, we will bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill and will give citizenship to the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian refugees, the religious minorities from the neighboring nations,” Shah said in April. “Then, we will implement NRC to flush out the infiltrators from our country.”
Critics say the registry will affect Indian Muslims. A similar exercise carried out in the BJP-ruled state of Assam resulted in the exclusion of 1.9 million people who are at the risk of becoming stateless or being sent to detention centers.
Modi denied there were detention centers in the country. “Nobody is sending the country’s Muslims to detention centers nor are there any detention centers in India,” he said. Local media in Assam report that construction of a detention center the size of seven football fields has been underway since September.
In the northeastern states bordering Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, opposition to the law is rooted in concerns about demographic changes that could alter the indigenous language and culture.
Police action against protesters has also spurred anger. Police in Delhi stormed a university campus, fired tear gas into a library and assaulted students. Police killed two people in the southern state of Karnataka. In the large northern state of Uttar Pradesh, police responded to violent protests by detaining nearly 5,000 people. Residents in several districts allege that police ransacked property.
Modi did not address accusations of police excesses in his speech. He accused protesters of targeting security personnel. He claimed the protesters are seeking to “defame” the nation, in cahoots with his opponents and “urban Naxals,” a derogatory term used by the Hindu right for liberals.
The United States advised its citizens in India to “exercise caution” in light of the continued protests. Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, urged India to “abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom.”
The Indian citizenship law has also sparked protests in the United States, Britain and Australia.