Police have arrested dozens of people in India where thousands protested against legislation granting citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from neighbouring countries.

Groups of protesters defied a curfew in Gauhati, the state capital, on Thursday morning and burned tyres before police dispersed them.

Army soldiers drove and marched though the streets to reinforce police in the violence-hit districts of Gauhati, Dibrugarh and others, said state police chief Bhaskar Mahanta.

A protester begs a police officer to allow them to proceed
A protester begs a police officer to allow them to proceed (AP/Anupam Nath)

Protesters oppose the legislation, approved by Parliament on Wednesday, out of concern that migrants will move to the border region and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace and in a tweet said: “I want to assure them — no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.”

The Press Trust of India news agency said the protesters uprooted telephone poles, burned several buses and other vehicles and also attacked homes of officials from the governing Hindu nationalist party and regional group Assam Gana Parishad.

Police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in 10 out of the north-eastern Assam state’s 33 districts.

While those protesting in Assam are opposed to the bill because of worries it will allow immigrants, irrespective of their faith, to live in their region, others are opposed to the bill because they see it as discriminatory for not applying to Muslims.

Police stop commuters during a curfew in Gauhati
Police stop commuters during a curfew in Gauhati (AP/Anupam Nath)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh because of religious persecution before 2015. It does not, however, extend to Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Burma.

Home minister Amit Shah said it was not anti-Muslim because it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities.

Amnesty India said the legislation legitimised discrimination on the basis of religion and stood in clear violation of India’s constitution and international human rights law.

“Welcoming asylum seekers is a positive step, but in a secular country like India, slamming the door on persecuted Muslims and other communities merely for their faith reeks of fear-mongering and bigotry,” the rights group said in a statement.

Several opposition MPs who debated the bill in India’s parliament said it would be challenged in court.

Sonia Gandhi of the main opposition Congress party said: “Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India. The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism.”