In 2019, Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (hereafter ‘CAA’) to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. It thereby offered illegal migrants a path to Indian citizenship, as long as they (a) belong to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities and (b) are from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Over 200 litigants have filed petitions challenging the constitutionality of the CAA in the Supreme Court. They primarily contend that the CAA violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality to all persons, including non-citizens. They submit that the Amendment relies on an arbitrary distinction on the basis of religion and geography. In addition, there is subset of petitions which assert that the CAA contradicts the Assam Accord, 1985.
Unique Circumstances in Assam
Since Independence, Assam has experienced several large influxes of migrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). As a result, it has special legislation governing citizenship. Most significantly, the 1985 Assam Accord defined which migrants would be elligible for citizenship based on when they (or their parents) had migrated to Assam. Till this day, the State is still reviewing which residents enjoy citizenship and voting rights. Just last year, it published the final draft of its National Register of Citizens (NRC), labeling 19 lakh residents as illegal migrants.
Several petitioners, such as the All Assam Students Union and the National People's Party, have approached the Supreme Court contending that the CAA not only violates Article 14, but also contradicts the Assam Accord. They express concern that the CAA will offer a path to citizenship to illegal migrants from Bangladesh, who would have been otherwise excluded from Assam's National Register of Citizens.
Yesterday, in the first hearing since January, a Bench comprising the Chief Justice, Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice Hrishikesh Roy briefly heard a new Assamese petition by the Muslim Students Federation (Assam). The counsel for the petitioners argued that the Bench should issue an ex-parte stay on the CAA, 'insofar as the State of Assam is concerned'. He contended that no migrants who had arrived in Assam after 24 March 1971, the cut-off date set by the Assam Accord, should gain a path to citizenship via the CAA.
However, the Chief Justice's Bench declined to issue a stay. It merely issued notice to the Union and tagged the petition to the other 200+ CAA petitions.
Who are the Muslim Students Federation (Assam)?
The MSF (Assam) are a State branch of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The IUML already filed a petition in December 2019 challenging the CAA. Nevertheless, the MSF chose to file an additional petition in order to challenge the CAA on the ground that it dilutes the Assam Accord, 1985.
The Court is likely only to take up the CAA petitions after it finishes hearing the Sabarimala Review petitions. However, it is possible it may fast track the petitions pertaining to Assam, given the on-going NRC exercise and the fact that it has agreed to hear the Assam and Tripura petitions as separate batches.