The Supreme Court declined calls to suspend the implementation of a new citizenship law yesterday, deciding that a constitutional bench of five judges was needed to hear all the challenges to legislation that critics say discriminates against Muslims.
The court gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government four weeks to respond to 144 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Citizenship Amnedment Act (CAA) which has ignited protests across the country.
The law, which came into effect on January 10 after being passed by parliament in December, lays out a path for citizenship for six religious minorities in neighbouring countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Critics say that the omission of Muslims is discriminatory, and that basing the right to citizenship on religion violates the secular principles of India’s constitution.
Opposition leaders, Muslim organisations and student groups had petitioned the court to hold off implementation of the law until the challenges to the legislation were settled.
But Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde heading a three-bench panel told a packed courtroom that only a constitutional bench of five judges could rule on the matter and in the meantime gave the government more time to explain its stance.
“We will give you four weeks to file reply to all petitions,” Bobde told the government’s top lawyer, indicating that the next hearing will be held in late February.
The government says the law is for the benefit of religious minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.
The biggest student organisation in the northeastern state of Assam, where some of the worst violence was seen last month during widespread protests against the law, said it would keep up its opposition.
“Non-violent and democratic protests will continue alongside the legal battle,” All Assam Students Union general secretary Lorinjyoti Gogoi said.
There is precedent for contested laws not to be implemented while petitions are outstanding, but yesterday’s ruling allows the CAA to take effect, for now.
While some petitioners said they were satisfied by the court’s moves, critics felt the court was ignoring “fears” expressed by Indian citizens.
An initial round of demonstrations, some of them violent and resulting in the death of 23 people, have calmed down, but groups of protesters continue to stage rallies and demonstrations every day.
“The hearing-as-usual approach (by the court) is unlikely to inspire confidence at a time when people are desperately looking for assurance from the constitutional order,” political activist Yogendra Yadav wrote in The Print news portal.
“The present Supreme Court appears to be a reluctant warrior in the battle to defend the constitution,” Yadav said.
“We are happy with the court’s response, it is up to the government now to clarify things,” one of the petitioners, P K Kunhalikutty of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) said.
Kunhalikutty’s petition claims the CAA violates the fundamental right to equality enshrined in the constitution by making an exclusion on the basis of religion.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal appearing for IUML urged the court to postpone the process for a few months.
However, Attorney General K K Venugopal opposed it saying it was equivalent to a stay.
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