India's Modi claims citizenship law backlash is 'a conspiracy'
The death toll jumped on Sunday after demonstrations turned violent on Friday in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where at least 15 people were killed including an eight-year-old boy who was trampled to death.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday used a rally for his Hindu nationalist party to defend the legislation, accusing the opposition of pushing the country into a "fear psychosis".
Modi took the stage at a rally in the capital launching his Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign for New Delhi legislative assembly elections in February, quickly turning to the contentious law.
"People who are trying to spread lies and fear, look at my work. If you see any trace of divisiveness in my work, show it to the world," he said.
Modi accused the main opposition Congress party of conspiring "to push not only New Delhi but other parts of the country into a fear psychosis".
"They are trying every tactic to push me out of power," he said.
At least 24 people have died so far in the unrest, mostly in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims make up almost 20 percent of the state's population of 200 million.
|Indians protest against the citizenship law in New Delhi [Getty]|
Anger has been growing over the law, approved by parliament on December 11, which gives religious minority members from three neighbouring countries an easier path to citizenship - but not if they are Muslim.
Critics say the law violates India's secular constitution and discriminates against Muslims as part of Modi's Hindu-nationalist agenda, a claim his party denies.
Among those who have taken to the streets in protest against the amendment is Tushar Arun Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
"Everybody has a turning point in their life. If being thrown out of the train was a turning point in my great-grandfather's life, I think this issue of trying to change the soul of my nation is the turning point in my life," he told The Guardian, warning that India could soon become a "fascist dictatorship".
"It will be a dictatorship using democratic process, and that is even more dangerous," Tushar Gandhi said.
Read more: Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India
Authorities have imposed emergency laws, blocked internet access, and shut down shops in sensitive areas across the country in an attempt to clamp down on dissent.
More than 7,000 people have either been detained under emergency laws or arrested for rioting, according to several state police officials.
Uttar Pradesh police said they have arrested 705 people involved in the protests.
The arrests however have done nothing to stop the spread of demonstrations across the country.
Protests were held on Saturday in numerous states, including in the cities of Chennai, Delhi, Gurgaon, Kolkata and Guwahati.
As day broke in the capital New Delhi, demonstrators held up their mobile phones as torches outside India's biggest mosque Jama Masjid in a show of dissent.
In Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar, three demonstrators suffered gunshot wounds and six others were wounded in a stone-throwing clash with counter-protesters, police said.
At an all-women protest in Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam - where the wave of protests started amid fears the immigrants would dilute their local cultures -participants said it was time to speak up.
"We came out to fight for our motherland, we came to fight without any arms and ammunition, we will fight peacefully," Lily Dutta told AFP.
Since being re-elected this year Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have stripped Muslim-majority Kashmir of its autonomy and carried out a register of citizens in Assam, a state with a large Muslim population where around two million were abruptly declared illegal immigrants earlier this year.
Read more: Muslims fearful in a hate filled India
The BJP has said it wants to conduct the National Register of Citizens (NRC) nationwide, fuelling fears that Muslims - a 200-million minority in India - were being disenfranchised.
BJP's general secretary Bhupender Yadav told reporters Saturday that the party would "launch an awareness campaign" and hold 1,000 rallies to dispel "lies" about the law.
In Uttar Pradesh, 15 people were killed in clashes with police, state police chief O P Singh said. Authorities have denied responsibility for the deadly violence.
One person was killed on Thursday ahead of Friday's violence that left 14 dead. Another died on Saturday.
Earlier police spokesman Shirish Chandra told AFP 10 people died Friday after being shot.
"Some of them died of bullet injuries, but these injuries are not because of police fire. The police have used only tear gas to scare away the agitating mob," state police spokesman Pravin Kumar told the Associated Press.
A boy also died Friday in a "stampede-like situation" when 2,500 people including children joined a rally in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, district police chief Prabhakar Chaudhary told AFP.
The unrest had already seen two deaths in the southern state of Karnataka and six in northeastern Assam state.
Meanwhile, India is building a detention centre for some of the tens of thousands of people who the courts are expected to ultimately determine have entered illegally. Modi's interior minister, Amit Shah, has pledged to roll out the process nationwide.
On Sunday, Modi denied the existence of a detention centre, accusing the Congress party of spreading fear that Indian Muslims would be jailed there.
Protests against the law come amid an ongoing crackdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region stripped of its semi-autonomous status and demoted from a state into a federal territory in August.
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay connected