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Dismay Over India's Citizenship Law Leads To Anti-Government Strikes

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're also following news in India today. Trade unions are on strike, and protests are underway across the country. Demonstrations erupted, we should remember, nearly a month ago. This was in opposition to a citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. But in recent weeks, they have morphed into much wider anti-government protests. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At the Gateway of India, an iconic marble arch overlooking Mumbai's port, protesters waved Indian flags and sang a Hindi version of a 19th-century antifascist hymn.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: In most of India's major cities, it's been nearly a month of rallies like this. Most of them have been in opposition to India's new citizenship law, which grants amnesty to undocumented migrants from three neighboring countries except if they are Muslim. Critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing government of discriminating against Muslims and of trying to turn this secular democracy into a Hindu nation.

PRIYANSHI BAHADUR: We cannot have citizenship on the basis of religion. It just goes against the very secular fiber of our country.

FRAYER: Protester Priyanshi Bahadur (ph) is from a Hindu family, like about 80% of Indians. But she fears Indian Muslims, who number nearly 200 million people, are becoming second-class citizens.

BAHADUR: It is a problem for me because I am empathetic. I care about other people. And India is not a Hindu state because it's a secular state.

FRAYER: The protesters' list of grievances has expanded in recent weeks to the government's crackdown in Kashmir, slowing economic growth and police brutality. The latest protests are in response to violence last Sunday at an elite university campus in New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Screaming).

FRAYER: Masked thugs armed with metal rods stormed dormitories at Jawaharlal Nehru University. They beat students, faculty and security guards. The college has long been a bastion of left-wing politics, and it had hosted lots of anti-government protests. It's unclear who the attackers were. Students blame Hindu nationalists loyal to Modi. But Modi's party denies that, blaming left-wing groups instead. Most of those who've taken to the streets in recent weeks are from the left-wing urban elite, people who never voted for Modi in the first place. They're worried the secularism enshrined in India's constitution is under threat. But protester Ganesh Kanate (ph) acknowledges that's not really a concern for most Indians.

GANESH KANATE: They're caring about their own welfare - my house, my car, my wife. It's a little difficult to pull him out of the economic comfort. That's a challenge.

FRAYER: India's middle class is booming. Modi won reelection last spring in a landslide in part by appealing to Hindu pride. These may be the biggest protests in decades, but unless his Hindu nationalist base turns against him, Modi's job is secure. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF OKAMI (O)'S "NORTHERN CRATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.