India's federal government has warned television stations not to broadcast images of protests against a new religion-based citizenship law, as it intensifies attempts to quell growing anger over what demonstrators say is an attack on the country's secular constitution.
At least 11 people have been killed over the last week as police cracked down on demonstrators and more than 1,200 -- including political leaders, have been detained -- after authorities tried to quash the protests that have spread to almost all major Indian cities. In the capital New Delhi, more than 40 people were held after violence erupted at a protest near Jama Masjid, a Mughal-era mosque on Friday, the Times of India reported.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government wants broadcasters to "abstain" from showing content that's "against the maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national attitudes," according to a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting letter tweeted by the country's biggest media group, Times of India. The nationwide unrest poses the biggest challenge to Modi in his six-year reign.
Sharat Chander, spokesman for the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting didn't answer calls seeking comment. The prime minister is expected to discuss the security situation in the country following the protests during his meeting Saturday with the council of ministers, Reuters reported, citing unnamed officials. Calls to Modi's office went unanswered.
These protests have hurt the government's image, said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Global perceptions are shifting-and that's no small matter for a nation that has long enjoyed a relatively positive image abroad and considerable soft power."
The new law bars undocumented Muslims from neighboring nations including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh from seeking citizenship in India. It's seen as a precursor to a nationwide citizens register that aims to weed out illegal migrants and which critics say is expected to be used against Muslim citizens by the government led by Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan on Saturday issued a series of tweets warning of the possibility that India may pose a threat to his nation to divert attention from the protests. He didn't expand on the nature of the threat.
"As these protests are increasing, threat to Pak from India is also increasing," Khan said on Twitter.
In New Delhi, Chandrashekhar Azad, head of the lower caste group Bhim Army, was among those held after police cracked down on a large gathering and used water canons and batons on the crowds on Friday evening.
Suroor Mander, a senior lawyer from New Delhi, was at the Daryaganj police station to help those who had been detained.
"This is the first time that I've seen lawyers rally in such numbers to help fellow citizens," Mander said. "About 500 lawyers have offered help across India. About 50 turned up in uniforms last night in old Delhi to help the people and 10 of them stood there all night to ensure justice -- it was very heartening."
Indian television and social media feeds have been deluged by news of spreading demonstrations led mostly by students of all faiths. They have stepped out in solidarity with their counterparts in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh where police entered campuses and beat up protesters.
Yasmin Kidwai, the local municipal councillor for Daryaganj who helped arrange medical and legal help for the nine minors and 40 others who were held, said that the protests had been largely peaceful "until someone set something on fire and mayhem broke loose."
The government has shown no signs of backing down on the contentious law that was passed on Dec. 11.
The internet has been shut down in Uttar Pradesh -- a state that's the size of Brazil -- and in Modi's home state of Gujarat and parts of Karnataka. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, warned the government may seize the property of anyone found to have indulged in violence during the protests.
India recorded the world's highest number of internet shutdowns, according to the Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Center. The longest shutdown has been recorded in Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority territory, where the block has been in place since August when the government scrapped the state's decades-old autonomy.
Protests against the citizenship law come amid the slowest economic growth in more than six years, rising unemployment and a growing unease fueled by a series of surprise government decisions that affect India's Muslims.
Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah scrapped seven-decades of autonomy in Kashmir and announced plans for a nationwide citizens registry or NRC that would require people to prove their citizenship. This new law has raised fears about damage to India's traditional secular ethos enshrined in its Constitution that treats all religions equally.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.