As Supreme Court hears petitions challenging CAA’s validity, Union Government questions petitioners’ locus

The case will be listed for further hearing before an appropriate bench on December 6, when the Union Government is likely to elaborate its reasons on why the Court should not entertain the petitions against CAA.

THE Supreme Court, on Monday, conducted an initial round of hearing of petitions challenging the validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). The bench comprising the Chief Justice U.U. Lalit,  Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Bela M. Trivedi subsequently posted the case for further hearing before an appropriate bench on December 6.

The hearing witnessed a detailed discussion about classification of the related petitions with the bench deciding to treat the Indian Union Muslim League vs Union of India petition as the lead matter.

Upon being informed of the total 232 petitions challenging the CAA, and the latest affidavit filed by the Union Government has not yet been compiled and provided to all parties, the bench appointed advocates Pallavi Pratap and Kanu Aggarwal as nodal counsel respectively from the Petitioner’s and Union Government’s side, in the matter to ensure proper compilation of documents to facilitate the smooth conduct of the proceedings.

The bench also observed that the nodal counsel will also consider designating some other petitions as lead matters keeping in view the grounds of geographical and religious classifications among other things. These matters may include petitions specific to Assam and Northeast.

The bench also granted time to the states of Tripura and Assam to file affidavits responding to petitions challenging the validity of the CAA in light of the Assam Accord and the factors relevant in the context of Tripura.

Union Government’s affidavit

In its latest affidavit, the Union Government has opined that CAA is a limited legislation that does not affect the rights of any Indian citizen. It submits that the CAA is a “benign piece of legislation which seeks to provide a relaxation, in the nature of an amnesty, to specific communities from the specified countries with a clear cut- off date.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act provides a framework for acquiring Indian citizenship by persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians, and who arrived in India before the end of December 2014.

The Statement of Objects And Reasons (SOR) appended to the CAA asserts that since the constitutions of the above-mentioned countries provide for a specific State religion, many persons belonging to minority communities face persecution on grounds of religion.

The affidavit by the Union Government claims that the matter has “attracted the attention of successive governments but no government took any legislative measure.”

The affidavit is worded in a manner that projects CAA as narrow legislation in terms of its territorial ambit and impact. “The CAA is a specific amendment which seeks to tackle a specific problem prevalent in the specified countries”, it propounds.

It argues that the CAA “does not impinge upon any existing right that may have existed prior to the enactment of the amendment and further, in no manner whatsoever, seeks to affect the legal, democratic or secular rights of any of the Indian citizens.”

The affidavit also questions the locus standi of certain petitioners who have approached the apex court in “public interest”, reasoning that matters concerning the sovereign plenary powers, “especially in regard to citizenship…cannot be questioned before this Hon’ble Court by way of a public interest petition.”

One argument that certain petitioners have raised is the exclusion of tribal areas of Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram from the ambit of the Act. This exclusion, according to the petitioners, violates Article 14 of the Constitution and does not have  a clear nexus with the object of the enactment. On this issue, the Union Government argues that the Parliament has a “wider latitude for classification in matters concerning foreign policy, citizenship, economic policy, etc.”

However, it does not respond to the claim by certain petitioners that the Act may be violative of Article 14 for excluding persecuted Muslim communities from the purview of the Act. It is worth noting that Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and Shia and Hazaras in Afghanistan undergo religious persecution similar to what the Act aims to rectify.

The CAA has also been challenged on the ground that it violates the terms and defeats the purpose of the Assam Accord signed between All Assam Students Union (AASU), All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) and the Central Government in 1985.

In response to this claim, the government has stated that “a harmonious construction of the Assam Accord and the CAA” is required, “as the CAA is a beneficial legislation intended for benefitting persons escaping religious persecution in particular neighboring states.”