NEW DELHI - Indian police on Tuesday dismantled a protest site in a south Delhi neighborhood in the wake of a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus infection.
Hundreds of police personnel wearing protective face masks arrived in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood and told protesters to clear the site and return home.
Delhi’s joint police commissioner D. C. Srivastava told reporters that the site was cleared because it was getting “dangerous … with this coronavirus” outbreak.
Protesters had been on a peaceful sit-in since mid-December against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that fast-tracks naturalization of persecuted religious minorities from neighboring Muslim-majority countries.
Critics of the law say it goes against the secular nature of India’s constitution because it excludes Muslims.
"The police came early today and announced eviction plan since public gatherings have been banned in Delhi due to the coronavirus lockdown," Umar Iqbal, a local resident and student at Jamia Millia Islamia University, told EFE.
He said even then some people decided to stay back, claiming the protest can go on with proper safety measures being taken. They were detained and later set free.
With a growing number of COVID-19 infections, the police last week urged the protesters at Shaheen Bagh to leave due to the risk of transmission posed by the large crowds at the site.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi then addressed the nation calling for a nationwide janata curfew or voluntary curfew by citizens on Sunday to curb the spread of the pandemic.
This resulted in protesters at Shaheen Bagh dwindle to a bare minimum to represent a symbolic sit-in.
On Sunday, the authorities banned assembly of five or more people in the Indian capital and sealed its borders and shut down all businesses until Mar.31.
The measure aims to force people to stay at home and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The police were given powers to punish violators and enforce the lockdown, although essential services have been exempted.
Delhi has recorded over 30 confirmed cases of coronavirus, one of which has resulted in death.
However, Amir SB, a volunteer at the protest site, told EFE the police had assured them that as long as their protest remained a symbolic one, they could go ahead with it.
"On the janta curfew day, there were five women protesting, then 144 was imposed, till then five could sit and protest. Last night, we came to know that curfew had been imposed when this symbolic protest was going on," he said.
As the protests turned symbolic, participants had left behind their footwear and cots and kept the place intact as a sign of their support for the movement.
Amir added that when the protesters sought clarifications from the authorities, they were arrested, and the entire site was dismantled and artwork - including graffiti and paintings - representing their protest -- were destroyed.
The protests at Shaheen Bagh were led by women, mostly housewives from the vicinity and other nearby neighborhoods, who took turns to maintain the sit-in for months, often bringing their kids along.
They had braved the biting cold during the winter months, when temperatures almost touched freezing point, and successfully held fort during the February riots between pro and anti-CAA mobs in the city, until coronavirus brought all activity to a standstill.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases has been on the increase in India, reaching 482 as of Tuesday morning, according to a statement by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country's apex body for biomedical research and the nodal testing agency for coronavirus patients.
Experts have cast doubts over the relatively small number of cases in the country of over 1.3 billion people saying the real figure may not be known because of a lack of testing facilities.
Currently, 30 Indian states and union territories are under complete lockdown.