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Toronto protest against Indian citizenship law as divisive politics play out in Canada

India reacts to controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill
WATCH: India reacts to controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill

TORONTO – As hundreds of people gathered in Toronto on Friday to protest a controversial citizenship law in India, some members of the city’s Indian community say a rise in divisive politics have created tensions here in Canada.

Multiple people have been killed in the South Asian nation over the past week as public anger swells over a citizenship law that critics say excludes Muslims and threatens the country’s secular democracy.

The law allows Hindus, Christians and people from other religious minorities who are in India illegally from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to apply for citizenship. However the legislation introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government does not include Muslims.

READ MORE: Here’s why people are protesting India’s citizenship bill

It comes after multiple other controversial moves in the majority-Hindu country, including an ongoing crackdown in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

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Divyani Motla was one of those who braved chilly temperatures to attend a rally at the Indian consulate in downtown Toronto on Friday. The Indian student at the University of Toronto said it was important for her to take part as a member of India’s Hindu majority.

Motla said she’s seen a rise in hateful political discourse in Canada amongst Indian communities, and says that Muslim Indians she knows have taken the brunt of it.

“There’s an aggressive Hindu right that has grown in the West,” said Motla.

“The citizenship act has been quite a contentious issue to talk about.”

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Sanober Umar, a history PhD candidate at Queen’s University, said she’s seen the aggressive side of the political discourse firsthand.

Umar said she was harassed online after speaking at an academic event in April, when she was critical of some of Modi’s policies in India.

READ MORE: Protests continue across India as opposition builds against citizenship law

She said Modi supporters tried to cancel the event and complained about it to the Indian consulate and Umar’s school.

Dozens of protesters showed up to try to disrupt the talk and several sent her death and rape threats afterwards, Umar said.

“In the past few years, there has been a rise of right-wing Indian immigrants … who have been on the ground accusing anyone who speaks against Narendra Modi of being anti-Indian and anti-immigrant,” said Umar.

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“They’re trying to manufacture this discourse that anyone who challenges the BJP is essentially anti-India or Hindu-phobic,” she said, referring to the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party.

Nasser Khan, who was born and raised in India but identifies as Canadian, said he’s become more hesitant about travelling back to the country as he says anti-Muslim policies continue to roll out.

“When you visit, you don’t feel safe, you don’t feel comfortable the way you used to a couple of years ago,” said Khan, who lives in the Greater Toronto Area.

“You’re not able to express what you want, if you question the government you’re labelled an anti-nationalist right away.”

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He said that he’s also seen divisive politics spread throughout the Indian community in Canada, especially through social media.

READ MORE: Protests over Indian citizenship law incite chaos, violence at Delhi university

“There’s a lot of hateful posts that I see from people living in Canada and originating in India,” said Khan.

“It concerns me, because this country is different from back home and people still carry that baggage here.”

At the Toronto protest, Motla said that she’s also been told by her parents that she might be safer staying in Canada for the time being.

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“It’s upsetting and heartbreaking when your family is telling you to not come back, because it’s not the country you were in before,” she said.

— With files from The Associated Press