A whopping 144 petitions against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) were taken up for hearing by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde heard the petitions, most of which demand that the law be withdrawn.
The court refused to put a stay on the CAA, which is at the core of nationwide protests, and gave the Centre four weeks to respond to petitions on the law, making it clear that it would not grant any stay without hearing the government. The court also said a five-judge constitution bench will give an interim order on some 140 petitions on the law.
The Supreme Court also restrained all High Courts from hearing petitions on the CAA before it decided on those pleas.
Petitions linked to Assam and Tripura will be taken up separately as the problem with CAA in these two states is different from rest of the country, said the three judges.
Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, told the judges that the government had been given copies of around 60 of those petitions. He requested time to respond to the rest.
Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal urged the court to defer the implementation of National Population Register (NPR) for the time being.
The citizenship law, which makes religion a criterion for Indian citizenship, says non-Muslim minorities from Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can become citizens easily if they fled religious persecution and entered India before December 31, 2014. Critics believe the CAA, along with the NRC or citizen’s list, will be used to target Muslims.
The petitions contended that the new law is illegal and stands against the basic structure of the Constitution. They also say the law is against the right to equality as it will grant citizenship on the basis of religion. Some of the petitions have also sought a freeze on the legislation which came into force on January 10.
The list of petitioners includes several political parties — the chief of them being the Congress, the DMK, CPI, CPM, Indian Union Muslim League or IUML, Asaduddin Owasi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam.
Earlier on the January 9, the court had refused to entertain a plea that the citizenship law be declared constitutional, saying the country is “going through difficult times” and the endeavour now should be for peace. “This court’s job is to determine validity of a law and not declare it as constitutional,” the bench — which also includes Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant – said.
The challenge to the law in the Supreme Court comes in the backdrop of countrywide protests against it, and Union minister Amit Shah’s reiteration that the law will stand despite the opposition.
Speaking in Lucknow — one of the epicentres of protests — as part of the government’s outreach to the people today, Amit Shah said, “Let me say this here and now, this law will not be withdrawn, no matter who protests… We are not scared of opposition, we were born in it.”