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International relations

Modi-Abe summit postponed amid protests over citizenship bill

Bangladeshi minister also cancels visit as tensions in northeast India escalate

Student activists hang effigies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Home Minister Amit Shah, left during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Gauhati, India, on Dec. 9.    © AP

NEW DELHI -- Massive protests in India's northeast against a controversial citizenship bill have forced Japan and India to postpone a summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, scheduled for Dec. 15-17. 

Separately, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen canceled his Dec. 12-14 visit to India amid concerns over the ongoing situation in the country, even though the Indian government said the Muslim-majority neighbor's decision was taken due to changes in "his program on account of domestic issues."

India's Ministry of External Affairs on Friday clarified that the annual Modi-Abe summit had been postponed. Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a statement: "With reference to the proposed visit of Japanese [Prime Minister] Abe to India, both sides have decided to defer the visit to a mutually convenient date in the near future."

Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam, was slated to host Abe's summit with Modi on Monday, though the meeting place had not been officially announced. On early Friday, sources in Abe's government told Nikkei that they were coordinating plans to cancel his India visit.

Parts of Assam and neighboring regions have seen major agitation following parliament's approval of the bill, which would grant citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and members of three other minority religious groups who have fled to India to escape persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Indian police and paramilitary personnel stop protesters during a curfew in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Dec. 12. Police arrested dozens of people and enforced a curfew Thursday in several districts in India’s northeastern Assam state where thousands protested legislation that would grant citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from neighboring countries.   © AP

Assamese people, whose state borders Bangladesh, fear that granting citizenship to illegal migrants from the neighboring country would threaten their culture and language. TV footage showed thousands of people taking to the streets of Guwahati, shouting slogans against the bill and burning tires. There were also reports that two people were shot dead by police. 

Many Indians also view the bill as anti-Muslim, as it seeks to offer citizenship on the basis of religion, but excludes. India's population of 1.3 billion is around 80% Hindu and 15% Muslim, with other faiths making up the rest. The country has a tradition of secularism and the constitution guarantees fundamental equality to all people. 

On Thursday, Modi accused the opposition Indian National Congress of misleading the country on the citizenship bill and fomenting trouble in the northeast. "We are working for [the development] of the northeastern region. We want it to be the growth engine" of the country, he said. 

"It is well known that those minorities who chose to make Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan their home had to constantly live in the fear of extinction. This amended legislation by [the] Modi [government] will allow India to extend them dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives," tweeted Home Minister Amit Shah.

However, many see the latest move by Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leads the government, as a violation of the constitution.

"It's not [part of] India's culture, ethos and political ethics to enact such a law," said Narayan Bareth, a political analyst based in India's northwestern state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan. "It is not according to the spirit of our constitution."

"The country has the right to deny [or grant] citizenship to anybody, but it has now been underlined that [decisions will be on the basis of] religion, which is unfortunate," he said, dismissing the bill as an electoral ploy aimed at keeping Hindus loyal to the BJP.

The ruling party was returned to power for another five-year term in May, but lost in a recent state election. "The BJP [wants] to create a gulf between Muslims and other religions in the country," Bareth said.

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