CAA legal battle: Many petitions in the Supreme Court

Accusations of discrimination, violation of Assam Accord, and arguments on federalism take centre stage as the court prepares to weigh the Act’s fate.

Published : Mar 16, 2024 19:12 IST - 8 MINS READ

Elderly women take part in a protest after Modi government notifies rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, at Chachal Dharna Ground in Sivasagar, Assam on March 14.

Elderly women take part in a protest after Modi government notifies rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, at Chachal Dharna Ground in Sivasagar, Assam on March 14. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Home Ministry’s March 11 notification, detailing the rules for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019, has sparked a surge in fresh petitions filed against the CAA in the Supreme Court. This marks a significant escalation in the legal battle over the controversial Act, which has faced widespread criticism for its exclusionary stance towards Muslims. Over 200 petitions challenging the Act are pending in the Supreme Court since December 2019. With a substantial number of petitions lined up for review, the apex court is preparing for a thorough examination of the CAA and its Rules.

The implementation of the CAA has been a central issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), forming a major part of its 2019 election manifesto. However, it has faced a severe backlash for the Act’s perceived discrimination. There were several protests when it was first announced, the most famous one held in Delhi at Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh. There has also been significant opposition in Assam, which began afresh after March 11.

In response to the sudden enactment of the Rules, numerous applications have been submitted to the court seeking a stay on both the Act and the Rules. Various petitioners, including the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Assam Congress leader Debabrata Saikia, have filed appeals for intervention. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi joined the list with an application filed on March 16.

Also Read | BJP’s strategic relaunch of CAA unveils a relentless pursuit of majoritarian agenda  

The Supreme Court has announced that it will hear all petitions related to the CAA and the recently notified Citizenship (Amendment) Rules of 2024 on March 19. The bench, led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, has stated that all the 190-odd petitions will be heard alongside applications seeking a stay on the Rules.

The decision came after senior advocate Kapil Sibal mentioned the matter on behalf of the IUML, one of the petitioners challenging the CAA. Sibal emphasised the urgency, highlighting that with the notification of the Rules just before the elections, granting citizenship could complicate matters.

The petitions present a range of arguments, from the CAA being discriminatory to Muslims to the allegation that it violates the Assam Accord of 1985 by contradicting its provisions regarding illegal immigration.

The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 to resolve the Assam Movement, seeking to protect the State’s indigenous population and culture. It aimed to detect and deport illegal immigrants who entered Assam after 1971 while providing safeguards for the indigenous people. The accord set deadlines for detecting foreigners and introduced measures for their deportation.

States against CAA

As the highest court gears up to analyse the Act and its implications, the upcoming days hold significant importance in shaping the fate of this contentious legislation.

The Tamil Nadu and West Bengal Chief Ministers have unequivocally opposed the implementation of the CAA in their respective States, while Kerala became the first State to legally challenge the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules, 2024.

On March 12, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin declared that the CAA would not be enforced in the State. He further denounced the Act as a tool that only serves to validate Islamophobia. Through a social media post on March 15, coinciding with the UN International Day to Combat Islamophobia, Stalin underscored the erosion of India’s secular values under the BJP-led government since 2014.

Similarly, on March 12, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee voiced her opposition to the CAA, cautioning citizens about its implications. She emphasised that it jeopardised individuals’ rights and citizenship status, urging them not to seek citizenship under the Act in order to avoid being labelled as refugees or infiltrators and losing access to government benefits.

While Kerala had filed a petition against the CAA in 2020, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government escalated the issue by approaching the Supreme Court on March 14. In an official statement, the Chief Minister’s Office reiterated the State’s steadfast refusal to implement the CAA and announced plans for additional legal action. Vijayan emphasised its inconsistency with the constitutional framework. A statement issued by the Chief Minister’s Office said that relevant people had been tasked with taking the legal proceedings ahead, further to the original 2020 suit that is already pending in court.

Kerala’s Law Minister P. Rajeev, speaking on the issue, said the CAA was against the basic structure of the Constitution. “The CAA is against the basic principle, fundamental principles of the Constitution and we pray to declare this as an anti-constitutional, an ultra vires to the Constitution. That was the prayer in the earlier suit. Now we have decided to approach the Supreme Court again. We have delegated our advocate general to interact with our senior counsel in the Supreme Court and take proper action to approach the Supreme Court.”

Members of Progressice Democratic Students’ Federation (PDSF) stage a protest after the central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in Kolkata, on March 16, 2024.

Members of Progressice Democratic Students’ Federation (PDSF) stage a protest after the central government notified the rules for implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in Kolkata, on March 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

In a petition submitted to the apex court on March 12, the Kerala-based IUML and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) said the legislation marked an unprecedented departure by introducing religion as a decisive criterion for acquiring Indian citizenship. The DYFI, represented by advocate Biju P. Raman and Subhash Chandran K.R., argued in its petition that this is the first time religion has been introduced as a reference point or condition for acquisition of Indian citizenship.

The IUML, whose petition leads the more than 200 petitions challenging the CAA, asked why the government had suddenly notified rules even as the previous cases were pending in the Supreme Court. The IUML had first filed a petition in the Supreme Court a day after it was passed in 2019, one of the first to challenge the CAA, arguing that excluding Muslims from the law goes against the right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution. The party, insisting that the CAA rules should be put on hold until the Supreme Court decides on the pending petitions, has asked for a stay. No hearing has taken place in the case so far.

Highlighting inconsistencies

Debabrata Saikia, an Assam Congress MLA and the State Assembly’s Opposition leader, has argued on similar lines. In a petition filed on March 12 in the Supreme Court, he challenged the Rules, saying they “introduced classification based on religion and country”, which, he contended, “fails the manifest arbitrariness test established in Shayara Bano vs Union of India case of 2017”.

Saikia highlighted the inconsistencies in the treatment of persecuted religious minorities, notably the exclusion of groups like Sri Lankan Eelam Tamils. He emphasised the violation of the Assam Accord of 1985, which mandated the expulsion of foreigners arriving after March 25, 1971, asserting that providing citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants contradicts the Accord and undermines Assam’s socio-economic fabric.

Also Read | The Citizenship Amendment Act: A tumultuous journey

On March 13, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) launched a satyagraha across the state protesting the implementation of the CAA. The same day, AASU also filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Rules, claiming that they contradict both the Assam Accord and Section 6A of the Citizenship Act 1955. According to the students’ union, the implementation of these rules could potentially legitimise illegal migrants, posing a threat to indigenous cultures and violating various constitutional provisions.

The organisation, represented by Ankit Yadav, argues that the Citizenship (Amendment) Rules, 2024, are unconstitutional and infringe upon Articles 14, 15, 19, 21, 25, and 29 of the Constitution. While Articles 14, 15, and 21 all focus on equality and justice, Article 14 guarantees equality before the law, Article 15 prohibits discrimination, and Article 21 protects life and personal liberty. Article 19 deals with freedoms, assuring citizens of rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. Article 25 safeguards the freedom of religion, and Article 29 protects the right to property.

In its petition, AASU highlighted the detrimental impact of illegal immigration on the people of Assam, particularly from neighbouring Bangladesh. “The rules are a clear political move to fundamentally assault and redefine the constitutional basis of both Indian nationhood and the citizenship of Assam. The residents of Assam have opposed the influx of non-Assamese people, especially those who have migrated to the state from neighbouring Bangladesh, and these rules are legitimising the same,” the petition reads. It also emphasises the local opposition to the influx of non-Assamese residents and asserts that the implementation of these rules will only exacerbate the issue.

In the latest development, Owaisi filed a petition on March 16 seeking a stay on the implementation of CAA. Owaisi’s petition also claims that the CAA is in violation of Articles 14 (Equality before the law) and 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Constitution. “The evil posed by the CAA is simply not one of under-inclusion of grant of citizenship but is very blatantly the isolation of a minority community to selectively take action against them consequential to denial of citizenship. Any such action taken selectively against Muslims who have been excluded/left out of NRC would be onerous, likely irreversible, and completely unconstitutional,” it read.

All eyes are now on the apex court, as it gears up to scrutinise the arguments. Clearly, the outcome of these deliberations will decide the nature of Indian citizenship and the shape of Indian democracy.

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