The Supreme Court today granted four-week time to the Centre to reply to the 144-odd petitions challenging the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA. While most of the petitions challenge the constitutional validity of CAA, some of them seek a declaration that the act is constitutional.
The apex court also ordered that high courts should not take up cases on CAA.
As the hearing began, Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, told the bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad Arvind Bobde that there are 140-odd petitions but only 60 petitions have been served on Union. He sought time to reply to the rest of them.
Lawyer Kapil Sibal, representing a group of petitioners, said that matter should be heard by a Constitution bench. He also urged the court to direct Centre to put the process of granting citizenship on hold for two-three months till the apex court hears the matter. The Supreme Court is likely to send the matter to a constitution bench.
Sibal further said that the National Population (NPR) exercise is scheduled for April and should be postponed through an interim order of the court. Fellow lawyer and Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who is also representing the petitioners, also demanded a stay saying, "If the process could wait for 70 years, can it not wait for two more months?"
But Venugopal opposed it saying there should be no interim order without hearing the Centre. The Centre's top law officer said that seeking the postponement of implementation of the act is the same as seeking a stay of the same. CJI Bobde agreed and said it won't grant any stay without hearing Centre.
The petitions first came up for a hearing before the top court on December 18, 2019 when the court issued notice to the central government and Venugopal. Only 60-odd petitions had been filed by then.
The Centre had subsequently filed a transfer petition seeking transfer of CAA-related cases from high courts to the Supreme Court.
The change in the citizenship law, which was passed by Parliament on December 12, 2019, amends Section 2 of the Citizenship Act, which defines "illegal migrants". In this definition, Parliament added a provision that excluded people belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, from being counted as undocumented migrants. The only condition was that such people should have entered the country before 31 December 2014.
The exclusion of Muslim community from this special dispensation has led to widespread protests across the country. Critics say this is the first time that a law has linked Indian citizenship to the applicant's religion. There have also been protests against a proposed all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the potential problems in the two working in combination.
The petitioners challenging the law have submitted that the CAA discriminates on the basis of religion by segregating persons and granting them the benefit of naturalisation, if they belong to a certain religion from three neighbouring countries.
This religious segregation, the petitioners submitted, is without any reasonable differentiation and it is not only violates Article 14, but is also blatantly opposed to the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
Supporters of CAA have argued that the exclusion of Muslims from the three countries is reasonable since Muslims are in a majority in the three countries and are hence not in danger of being persecuted for their faith.