Aysha Renna didn’t think she would ever find herself confronting baton-wielding police officers to protect a fellow Muslim student from a beating.
But the 22-year-old, along with several other women, is now being praised for her bravery after a video showing them stopping Indian police from attacking her friend went viral on social media.
“At that moment, I wanted to save my brother, so in order to do that I wanted to make these people (go) away,” she told CNN on Tuesday.
Renna was among 2,000 people demonstrating at the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi on Sunday against a controversial law that offers a path to citizenship for non-Muslim religious minorities from select countries.
Images of the protest shared widely online show Renna and fellow student protester Ladeeda Farsana standing above protesters with their hands raised, leading many to embrace the pair as figureheads of the movement.
Hundreds of people were injured in the protests, with students telling CNN they were beaten by police with sticks and batons. Dozens have been arrested. Delhi Police said they were unarmed and used minimum force to bring the crowds under control.
Since the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) was passed into law by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, protests have broken out across nine states, including in major cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and the capital New Delhi, mostly around university campuses. Meanwhile, ongoing protests in Assam, in India’s northeast, turned violent, with at least five people killed, police said.
Renna has been in hiding since the incident on Sunday, when the demonstrations were broken up by police who forced their way into her university library, firing tear gas.
In the viral video, police can be heard telling the young women – who had taken shelter in a nearby house – to come outside. The women tell the police to leave before the officers grab their friend and drag him onto the sidewalk, where they beat him with batons.
The women then put themselves in front of the police batons to shield their friend from the blows, shouting at the officers to leave.
“We didn’t think about it, we just wanted to save our brother,” said Farsana, a 22-year-old Arabic student at Jamia university and one of the women who intervened.
The man targeted by police, Shaheen Abdullah, 24, said the group was running to get away from a stampede of people who fled the university once police moved in, but the group of officers had chased them.
“These brave girls, they came out and were trying to shield me,” Abdullah said. “I was like no, no! It should be the other way!”
Renna said that she doesn’t fear police violence, “because the most fearful thing is the government’s action against the minorities.”
Anger has been growing nationally over the CAA, which promises to fast-track citizenship for religious minorities, including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who arrived in India before 2015.
In photos: Protesters rally against India's citizenship bill
But the exclusion of Muslims – which Modi said is because they are not minorities in India’s neighboring countries – has raised concerns about the bill’s constitutionality and the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric in India.
“This act is clearly against Indian Muslims, it’s against the constitution. So we want to save our constitution,” Farsana told CNN. “We want to fight for our right.”
The passing of the new law has also raised fears among many of India’s 200 million Muslims that their own citizenship could be called into question in the not too distant future.
Many have linked the new law to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s repeated promise to implement a nationwide register of citizens, a process by which residents will need to provide the government with evidence that they are living in India legally. The government has insisted that the policy is intended only to root out illegal immigrants.
So far the registry has only been implemented in Assam, where earlier this year, an estimated 1.9 million people were excluded from the list – the majority of whom were Muslim, and therefore not protected under the new law.
“We will be physically turned out,” said Abdullah. “There is no other country we can go. This is our land and we have to stay here and we have to fight for that.”
Modi has sought to reassure Indian citizens that the new citizenship law will “not affect any citizen of India of any religion,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“This act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India,” Modi said.
But critics say the citizenship legislation is part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) agenda to push Hindu nationalism onto secular India. The BJP has its roots in India’s right-wing nationalist Hindu movement that promotes a vision of a Hindu nation.
Protesters have continued to stage rallies across the country.
A partial curfew was imposed in the district of North East Delhi on Wednesday after protests against the citizenship law turned violent. Delhi police spokesperson Arun Mittal, told CNN that a ban on large public gatherings has been put in place.
Indian police and protesters clashed in the district on Tuesday, with protesters pelting stones and police firing tear gas in the area of Seelampur, Mittal said. Six people were arrested.
Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court has been asked to rule on whether the law is unconstitutional.
Abdullah said they will not stop protesting.
“We will regroup and we will protest again. We are not planning a riot but we need to show them that we are not going to step back,” he said. “We can’t just step back and wait for something to happen.”
Renna said that the government will not succeed in dividing the country.
“India will be united always,” she said. “India will be one.”
CNN’s Swati Gupta and Manveena Suri contributed reporting.