By Newley Purnell and Krishna Pokharel
NEW DELHI -- Indian authorities cut off communications and restricted access to parts of the capital in an effort to thwart large-scale public protests over a new law viewed by critics as discriminating against Muslims and eroding the country's secular traditions.
Authorities banned large gatherings and arrested protesters in several cities as students and civil-society groups attempted to organize nationwide demonstrations demanding the repeal of the new law, known as the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government pushed through the bill last week, creating a simplified pathway to citizenship for immigrants of all the major religions of South Asia except Islam. Protests have broken out daily on college campuses and in Muslim-dominated parts of New Delhi and across the country.
The law is the most recent in a series of actions the Modi government has taken this year to fulfill an agenda that Hindu nationalists have long advocated in a drive to emphasize a Hindu identity for the country. Critics say the moves erode India's tradition of religious tolerance.
The steps include banning a special form of divorce that was allowed for Muslims and removing the autonomous status of the country's only Muslim-majority state. The supreme court, in a decision long sought by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, recently ruled to allow a Hindu temple to be constructed on a bitterly disputed religious site where Hindu activists tore down a mosque they believe was built on the birthplace of an important Hindu deity.
The government says the steps don't discriminate against Muslims or any religious group. But the backlash against the law has disrupted business and conferences and added to concerns about the country's slowing economic, which posted its worst performance in six years last quarter.
In the capital, a large crowd of protesters gathered around the city's iconic Red Fort area in the morning, despite a police ban on such assemblies. Protest leaders said police detained hundreds of demonstrators and dispersed the others after charging at them with batons. Several subway stations around the area were shut down to restrict movement by the protesters.
Many of the dispersed protesters, mostly university students, then shifted their demonstration to an area near the national parliament building where rallies often take place. They waved India's national flag and held banners and posters with messages like "No to CAA," and "No to citizenship based on religion."
The students -- from all religious and economic backgrounds but mostly adhering to communist ideologies -- shouted slogans against the government and sang revolutionary songs to the music of drums.
"The government has brought this Citizenship Amendment Act to divide people at a time when young people like us are in need of jobs and there are more pressing issues like improving health, education and economic condition of the country," said Bhim, a 21-year-old student of history who was among those protesting. He said he is from an upper-caste Hindu family from a state in northern India and goes by one name.
A police officer keeping an eye on the protesters from adjacent police barricades estimated their number at 2,000.
As the protests erupted across the country Thursday, the government's Press Information Bureau published a series of tweets throughout the day about the Citizenship Amendment Act.
"Many kinds of myths are being spread about the Citizenship Amendment Act and people are being misled," it said in one of the tweets in Hindi. The new law affects immigrants and "has nothing to do with any Indian citizen in any way," it said in another tweet in English to the question "Does the CAA affect any Indian citizen?"
Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Vodafone Idea Ltd. , two of India's three largest carriers by subscribers, told customers on Twitter that they followed orders of the government to cut voice, text messaging and mobile internet services in some areas of New Delhi, home to more than 20 million people.
Representatives of the carriers declined to comment. A spokesman for Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., India's third major mobile network, declined to comment. And a spokeswoman for India's Ministry of Home Affairs couldn't be reached for comment.
By Thursday evening the voice, text messaging and mobile internet services had been restored, a spokesman for the Delhi Police said. He said the services were suspended for three to four hours in certain areas.
In India's technology hub of Bangalore, police detained civic leaders Thursday, including a noted liberal historian, Ramachandra Guha, who participated in a banned demonstration. Television and social media showed videos of his arrested throughout the day.
Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, also banned large gatherings. Still, protests broke out in different parts of Lucknow, the state's capital, a senior police officer in the city said.
The move is India's latest effort to stifle access to the web, which is used by about half of the country's 1.3 billion people. They depend on it for WhatsApp conversations with family and friends, use it to hail rides, shop online, book taxis, transfer money and more. But the government appears concerned the internet will be used for fomenting dissent and organizing protests.
So far this year India has cut access to the internet 94 times, according to India's SFLC.in, a group that advocates for digital freedom. That accounts for 67% of the world's documented shutdowns, the organization says.
Thursday's shutdown marks the first time the capital has been targeted, said an SFLC.in spokesman. "It's a first for Delhi," he said.
Last year India saw 134 internet shutdowns -- more than any other country, according to Access Now, another advocacy group. That was more than 10 times its neighbor Pakistan, which came in second with 12 shutdowns, and far more than Yemen and Iraq, with seven each.
Internet services have also been disrupted in recent days in the Northeastern state of Assam, which has seen protests related to the legislation. Parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir have had internet services suspended since early August, when the government removed the special autonomous status the only Muslim-majority state in India had enjoyed.
Write to Newley Purnell at firstname.lastname@example.org and Krishna Pokharel at email@example.com