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India's Prime Minister Defends Controversial Citizenship Law

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is defending his controversial citizenship law, as protests over that law sweep the country. This new law offers an expedited path to citizenship for migrants in the country illegally who have fled religious persecution from three neighboring countries, but it excludes Muslims. At least 23 people have been killed as clashes intensify between police and these hundreds of thousands of protesters, which - these protests are led by students and citizens of all faiths.

Now joining us on Skype from New Delhi is Washington Post India correspondent Niha Masih. Welcome back to the program.

NIHA MASIH: Good morning.

GREENE: So you've been covering these protests for some time now. What do they feel like right now?

MASIH: Right. So though it's been so many days since they began, there has not been a loss of momentum in these protests, which are happening, mind you, not just in big cities like Delhi and Bombay, but also in several small towns in the south, in the west, you know, really everywhere. And that's sort of the remarkable thing and something that poses a big challenge of the Narendra Modi government, which has not seen such an outburst of public anger in the last five years that it's been in charge.

So thousands of people are out there on streets every day defying various bans - like, you know, there are bans on gatherings. There is - Internet has been shut down in several places, metro stops are closed. And yet people come out. They're chanting slogans of freedom. They recite the national anthem. They read out the preamble of the Constitution and, really, try and register their protest, which they are against this law which they see as discriminatory and going against the country's secular Constitution.

Now, as you also mentioned, that there have been 23 deaths across, which have, you know, all been in situations which have gotten violent and many of those are from a police fighting impact.

GREENE: Well, so let me - let's talk about the prime minister. I mean, Modi has come out defending this law, accusing his opponents of inciting this violence. I mean, is he essentially promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda here with a law like this?

MASIH: Yes, absolutely. The prime minister and his party, the Bharatiya Janata party, has always foreground that their vision for the country is to - you know, is of a Hindu state and not what the founders of this country envisioned, which was a much more secular state. And they have, you know, advanced several legislations like this. So ever since it began - they came back into power of May this year, they first stripped Kashmir, which was the only Muslim majority region, of its autonomy and statehood.

Then, of course, the other long-standing demand of the Hindu right has been to build a temple at the place of a mosque, which was razed illegally by Hindu extremists in the '90s. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the temple. That's something that the Prime Minister has, you know, spoken again on the campaign trail and, of course, now the citizenship act, which the prime minister says is not against any religion. But if you see what his own deputy home minister, Amit Shah (ph), has said repeatedly that this will be followed by a nationwide citizenship registry, where everyone will have to provide documentary evidence of being Indian.

GREENE: Wow.

MASIH: If that does happen, critics say that Hindus will - who get excluded will find a path back. But the Muslims will not, and that's why this law is very dangerous.

GREENE: Any expectation that these protests could change these policies?

MASIH: Well, as of yesterday, when the prime minister, for the first time, defended it, he did not show any indication that the government is willing to back down, but the protests are also not dying out. So it's going to be a difficult situation in the days to come to see who's finally going to blink first.

GREENE: The Washington Post's Niha Masih in New Delhi. Thanks so much for your time.

MASIH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.