Assam’s National Register of Citizens | Constitution Bench to hear arguments from 17 October 2023Assam’s National Register of Citizens
On 20 September 2023, a five-judge Constitution Bench led by CJI D.Y. Chandrachud passed procedural directions in the batch of petitions challenging Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Bench will hear the case from 17 October 2023.
Earlier this year, on 10 January 2023, the Court identified that the primary question in the case was “whether Section 6A of the Citizenship Act 1955 suffers from any constitutional infirmity.”
The Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) was originally meant to identify illegal immigrants in the state who migrated from Bangladesh after 24 March 1971, following the outbreak of war with Pakistan.
In 1985, the Indian government and the representatives of the Assam Movement negotiated the Assam Accord. The Accord created three categories of immigrants:
- Persons who came to Assam before 1 January 1966. These persons were considered Indian citizens and were allowed to vote.
- Persons who came to Assam after 1 January 1966, but before 24 March 1971. These persons were considered Indian citizens, but would not be allowed to vote for a period of 10 years following the date of their “detection” as Indian citizens.
- Persons who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971. These persons were considered illegal immigrants and were to be expelled from India.
Section 6A of the Citizenship Act was introduced to give effect to the Assam Accord. It provides the framework to recognise migrants in Assam as Indian citizens or to expel them based on the date of their migration.
In 2012, Assam Sanmilitia Mahasangha and other organisations representing “the tribal and non-tribal population” of Assam, challenged the constitutionality of Section 6A on the grounds that it threatened the “integrity” of India.
In 2013, the Supreme Court directed Assam to update the NRC. The process was closely monitored by a two-judge bench, comprising then CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Nariman. They sought to ensure that the NRC exercise complied with the Citizenship Act, 1955, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and the Issue of National Identity Card Rules), 2003.
On 17 December 2014, the Bench referred the case along with 13 questions to a five-judge Constitution Bench. These questions were framed in a 2014 decision of the SC in a similar petition.
On 31 August 2019, the final NRC list was published. Of the 3.3 crore applicants, 19 lakh persons were excluded. One of the many controversies involving the list was the exclusion of children whose parents had been included in the final NRC list. In 2020, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal clarified that children would not be separated from their parents.
On 24 August 2022, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear 25 Constitution Bench cases including the challenge to the validity of Section 6A. .
On 7 September 2022, a five-judge Constitution Bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, M.R. Shah, Krishna Murari, Hima Kohli, and P.S. Narasimha listed the matter to be heard on 1 November 2022. Ultimately, on 22 August 2023, the Court announced that the matter would be taken up for directions by a bench led by CJI Chandrachud on 20 September 2023.
The case shall be called “In Re Section 6A of the Citizenship Act 1955”
The day’s hearing commenced with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta requesting the Bench to set schedules for the proceedings. He appreciated the Bench’s efforts to organise the cases and termed it “hugely beneficial” for all the counsels.
Senior Advocate Shyam Divan suggested that counsels on both sides be given two weeks to file the common compilation of cases and an additional week to file written submissions. He also informed the Bench that a version of the compilations existed, but it was not in the format prescribed by the Court’s SoP dated 22 August 2023.
Adding to the discussion, Senior Advocate C.U. Singh reminded the Bench of the question framed on 10 January 2023 and pointed out that the parties in the case were not to be distinguished by petitioners or respondents. Rather, they should be identified on the basis of whether they are challenging Section 6A or supporting it.
Appearing virtually, Senior Advocate Indira Jaising requested the Bench to direct the parties to restrict their submissions to the question framed by the Court on 10 January 2023—whether Section 6A suffers from any constitutional infirmity. Some lawyers pointed out that in the reference order, the Court had framed 13 questions. The Bench said that they would not get into these questions now and stated that the case concerned the constitutionality of Section 6A.
The Bench renamed the case to “In Re Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955” and listed the case for hearing on 17 October 2023. The Court also directed the nodal counsels to file compilations of cases and documents by 3 October 2023 and written submissions by 10 October 2023.