MUMBAI/NEW DELHI – Police opened fire on hundreds of protesters in southern India on Thursday, killing two, an official said, as fresh violence erupted around the country over a contentious citizenship law critics say is anti-Muslim.
The fatalities brought to eight the death toll from more than a week of unrest and came as authorities shut down internet and text messaging for tens of millions in India’s most-populous state.
In the southern city of Mangalore, two men identified as Abdul Jalil, 49, and Samshir Kudroli, 23, “died in police firing during the protests,” Qadir Shah, a spokesman for the deputy commissioner, told AFP.
He said a curfew had been imposed in the city with schools, restaurants and bars shut.
A third fatality was also reportedly linked to protests in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a man was hospitalized in Lucknow with a gunshot injury and died soon after, a hospital source told AFP.
Police did not confirm the death, but his father told the Times of India his son was shot after getting caught in a crowd of protesters while out to buy groceries.
Four others were being treated at a hospital in Mangalore “with bullet injuries following the clashes,” a district medical officer told AFP.
Deadly protests have broken out across India over a new law easing citizenship rules for people fleeing persecution from three neighboring countries — but not for Muslims.
Seven months after Modi swept to a second term, the law has stoked accusations at home and abroad that he wants to reshape India as a Hindu nation, which he denies.
The past week had already seen six people killed and dozens injured in the northeastern state of Assam.
On Thursday, authorities had banned gatherings across swathes of the world’s biggest democracy including all of Uttar Pradesh and Bangalore, areas of the northeast and parts of Bihar, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai.
But that did not prevent tens of thousands from taking their anger onto the streets.
In Mangalore, Shah said police fired their weapons after some 200 demonstrators refused to stop their march.
“They marched towards the busiest area of Mangalaru. This led to lathi (big, wooden sticks) charge. Then the tear gas was fired. When the protesters still didn’t stop, the police had to open fire after that,” he said, using an alternate name for the city.
Security forces and protesters also clashed in the states of Karnataka and Gujarat — Modi’s home state where police said they baton-charged demonstrators and arrested 50 people.
In Uttar Pradesh — home to some 200 million people — the government cut both mobile internet and SMS services after hundreds of protesters in the city of Samhbal set fire to vehicles and threw stones at security forces who responded with tear gas.
In New Delhi, metro stations were shut down, while authorities ordered telecom firms to cut calls, text messages and data in parts of the city.
Prominent rights activist Harsh Mander was detained in the capital, while in Bangalore the renowned historian Ramachandra Guha was among a number of protesters dragged onto a police bus.
In the northeast, where the protests originated last week, around 20,000 people marched in different locations — although this time no violence was reported.
The day’s biggest demonstration took place in Malegaon district of Maharashtra state with as many as 60,000 people, police said.
And a crowd of around 40,000 people in eastern West Bengal’s Kolkata city was led by the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a strong Modi critic.
In Mumbai, thousands including tattooed students and older Muslim men wearing skullcaps brandished Indian flags, posters of Mahatma Gandhi and handed out copies of the constitution.
“Something has changed. This is the first time in a long time that people in Mumbai have come out in such large numbers to register dissent,” said consultant Karishma V.
The protests have been fueled by anger about alleged police brutality including at a university in Delhi on Sunday night.
Security forces in the capital have fired some 450 tear gas shells in the past five days, the Hindustan Times daily reported. One student reportedly lost an eye.
The demonstrations in the city have at times turned violent with vehicles set on fire and protesters hurling stones at police in heavily Muslim areas on Wednesday.
“If they show us the lathi (police baton), we will show them roses,” a student in Delhi, Shivanji, told AFP as she handed flowers to police on Thursday.