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Dozens Of Indians, Mostly Muslims, Have Been Killed By Police During Recent Protests

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to India, where we've been reporting on weeks of protests against a new citizenship law - a law that excludes Muslim refugees. Tonight, we have a story about the government's response. Police have used violence against protesters on college campuses and in some of the country's poorest minority neighborhoods. The vast majority of those killed have been Muslims, and that has raised questions about whether police are targeting them. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Students chant for revolution on the leafy, green campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University. They've been rallying here for almost six weeks, ever since India's Hindu nationalist government pushed through a new citizenship law that its critics call anti-Muslim.

AYSHA RENNA: I'm protesting as a human. I'm protesting as a Muslim. I'm protesting as a Indian woman and everything.

FRAYER: Aysha Renna recalls how just a few days into their protests, she and her classmates came under attack by police.

RENNA: Before 15 of December, we thought that university campuses are the safe place to protest. But police - they attacked the students who were studying in the library. They were chasing students, and they were attacking them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

FRAYER: Viral video from that day shows Renna, who wears a Muslim headscarf, screaming at police to back off. She's since become an icon of these protests - a Muslim woman scolding Indian authorities. Alleged police brutality here prompted petitions all the way to India's Supreme Court. But away from the big city, Indian police are accused of using more deadly violence with impunity.

In a dark room in a poor Muslim enclave north of New Delhi, Nafisa, who goes by one name, sits on a bed, weeping. Her 28-year-old son Mohammed Mohsin was shot dead outside this house last month as protests raged a block away.

NAFISA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: His mother says he was illiterate. He didn't understand why people were protesting. He'd just gone out to gather hay for his cattle when police shot him dead, she says. They still haven't told his young children.

NAFISA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "They think he's away buying toys," she says.

Of the more than two dozen Indians killed by police nationwide since these protests began, the vast majority have been Muslims, even though the protesters overall have been diverse. Demonstrations have erupted across India, but the biggest police crackdowns have been in Muslim areas. Jamia Millia is a historically Muslim university. In the town of Meerut, where Mohsin was killed, five other men were fatally injured the same day, and they were all Muslims.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "The protesters had guns themselves, and they fired at us first," the state police chief told local TV. Police say that many of their own were injured and that officers merely fired into the air to disperse crowds. No one actually saw police fire at anyone in Meerut, and no one has been held to account.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

FRAYER: Danish Ahmed watched people flee the gunfire down his unpaved lane. He finds it hard to believe that any of his neighbors would attack police.

DANISH AHMED: (Through interpreter) Muslims in this town just want to keep their heads down. They're scared. They don't want to antagonize. Most of them don't even have time or inclination to protest. They just want to take care of their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

FRAYER: Those holes there?

SALEEM SIDDIQUI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Saleem Siddiqui shows me bullet holes in the wall of a building across the street from his office.

SIDDIQUI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "Police have used excessive force in Muslim areas like this," he says. "They're trying to intimidate." Siddiqui used to make a living helping people apply for food ration cards or government IDs. But since these shootings, he's become a full-time grief counselor, helping families apply for post-mortem reports and death certificates.

SIDDIQUI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "India's founding fathers wrote equal rights into our constitution," Siddiqui says, "but it feels like this government is moving away from that. I'm worried our democracy is in danger," he says.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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