On December 14, three days after the Parliament passed citizenship laws, hundreds of women gathered in South Delhi's Shaheen Bagh area to protest by staging a sit-in that would last for a little over three months. The protests without a visible leadership—much akin to the Occupy Wall Street protest—was a result of the Centre's Citizenship Amendment Act, (CAA) 2019, and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR).
Even as the protests escalated on the ground, several rushed to constitutional courts challenging the new legislation. NGOs, parliamentarians among them a former quiz master, former bureaucrats, and civil rights activists, among others have moved the top court. At least a dozen petitions were filed in the Supreme Court within hours of President Ram Nath Kovind ratifying the Act on December 12.
The Indian Union of Muslim League along with four Members of Parliament were the first to file their pleas when the Act was just a bill. Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Mahua Moitra was the first to challenge the Act.
Since then, at least 143 petitions—including the State of Kerala—have been filed on this issue. States assemblies ruled by the Opposition like Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal and Kerala have resolved to not implement the CAA, NRC and NPR in their states.
The CAA makes the citizenship process easier for refugees who are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis or Christians—except Muslims—migrating from its three neighbouring countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The NRC is a register of Indian citizens in accordance with the 2003 amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955. First implemented in Assam, the exercise identified migrants as Indian citizens with March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for the updated NRC. The NPR is considered to be the precursor to the NRC.
The final updated NRC in Assam published on August 31, 2019—the first state where the exercise was conducted—registered 3.1 crore people excluding 19 lakh people rendering them potentially stateless.
The CAA triggered mass civilian protests across the nation and acted as a catalyst for the communal riots in North East Delhi. According to the Delhi Police, the February violence—that resulted in 53 fatalities (75% were Muslims), and 581 injured—was a "pre-planned conspiracy and centrally co-ordinated" by leaders who planned the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
It has been a year since Bilkis dadi of Shaheen Bagh fired her salvo and the largely women-led protests intensified. Since then the implementation of the CAA has been delayed while intellectuals and activists have been arrested resulting in protests being abandoned. The pandemic and other covid related issues have distracted the Centre and it is unlikely that the legal challenges to the legislation will be heard soon.
Even as fresh protests erupt in pockets across the country, BOOM looks at the important developments triggered by the legislation in the past year.
CAA "seeks to divide the country": Plea in SC
The petitions in the apex court challenge the constitutional validity of the law. The pleas further argue that the CAA selectively allows "illegal migrants" into the country on the basis of their religion. This, they argue, goes against the secular fabric of the Constitution and assault fundamental rights to equality and dignity of life which is enshrined in the Basic Structure of the Constitution.
Trinamool Congress member of parliament Mohua Moitra's plea states that the CAA "seeks to divide the country". By introducing religion as a test to Indian citizenship, the amendment is a body blow to the basic structure of the Constitution, she added. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh argued that the CAA created an "unconstitutional exclusionary regime" which treats "equals as unequal". While social activist Harsh Mander argued that "Granting citizenship on the basis of religion goes against the grain of our Constitution."
Lok Sabha MP and President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi said the CAA is an affront to "constitutional morality". Even as NGO Rihai Manch said, "Citizenship law defines a country's political and constitutional identity. Laying down rules that determine membership in our political community only on the basis of one's religious belief is a negation of secularism, liberalism, equality and justice."
United Against Hate (UAH) led by student leader Umar Khalid—alleged to be one of the key conspirators of the Delhi riots, Kamal Hasan's political outfit Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), former bureaucrat Debabrata Saikia, and Director, Rights & Risks Analysis Group Suhas Chakma are a few among the hundreds who have sought constitutional recourse.
The state of Kerala has also challenged CAA. However, two conflicting SC judgments on whether states can challenge central laws may affect the maintainability of the state's plea.
The pleas challenging the constitutional validity of the CAA has been pending in the Supreme Court since the past one year. The top court on January 22 had issued notice but declined to stay the law. The three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde also prevented the high courts from adjudicating on the issue.
On March 3, senior advocate Kapil Sibal had urged the Supreme Court to list the petitions at the earliest otherwise it was in danger of becoming infructuous. Sibal had also sought a stay on the legislation. In response, the court said that matter pertaining to the CAA would be heard once the Sabarimala reference case—to be heard by a nine-judge bench—were laid to rest. On the issue of stay, the court said it would revisit the plea after it returned from the Holi break on March 16.
On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus as a pandemic distracting the Executive and the Judiciary. Physical hearings in the Supreme Court were suspended to be replaced by virtual hearings which continue till date.
CAA a benign piece of legislation: Centre to SC
The CAA is a "benign piece of legislation" which is "narrowly-tailored" to tackle a specific problem, the Centre told the Supreme Court in its interim reply filed in march. The legislation will not that will not affect an Indian citizen's "legal, democratic or secular rights", it added. In a 130-page interim reply, the Centre said the "CAA is a specific amendment which seeks to tackle a specific problem prevalent in the specified countries i.e. persecution on the ground of religion in light of the indisputable theocratic constitutional position in the specified countries…".
The Centre further argued that "matters concerning the sovereign plenary of the Parliament, especially in regard to citizenship" is outside the scope of judicial review.
Underscoring India's secular nature, the Centre said that just "because religion is the starting point of any classification [and not the sole basis of classification]" this does not imply that "such classification falls foul of the principles of secularism."
"It is submitted that the Indian secularism is not irreligious rather it takes cognizance of all religions and promote comity and brotherhood between all. It is further submitted that across subjects, the Indian Parliament and State Legislature, have made classifications on the basis of religious identities of Indian citizens as a starting point," the affidavit read.
"Not only partition of undivided India was based on religion, even cross border migration took place based in religion," Centre asserted.
Delhi Riots: 'Carefully engineered by secessionists'
By February, while the pleas continued to pile up in the constitutional courts, mass civilian protests were gaining ground. As communal clashes raged in the national capital between February 23-February 26, US President Donald Trump met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few kilometres away.
The Delhi Police registered 751 FIRs in the Delhi riots case and formed three teams to probe the case.
In its July 13 reply to a batch of petitions on the riots in the Delhi High Court, the Delhi Police submitted that the communal clashes were "carefully engineered" in a conspiracy to "execute a secessionist movement in the country by propagating an armed rebellion against the lawfully constituted government of the day". The entire conspiracy to defame the country in the international media has been outlined in chargesheet filed in FIR 59/20—the main conspiracy chargesheet probed by the Special Cell. In this FIR, the Delhi Police have accused 15 people under several provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and provisions of the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
CAA fundamentally discriminatory in nature: OHCHR
The ratification of the CAA has raised eyebrows in the international circuit too. The Office of the High Commissioner of United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed its concern over the "fundamentally discriminatory nature" of the CAA. "We are concerned that India's new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is fundamentally discriminatory in nature", the statement issued by OHCHR spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said.
"Religious freedom conditions in India are taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities. The BJP-led government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship only for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India. This potentially exposes millions of Muslims to detention, deportation and statelessness when the government completes its planned nationwide National Register of Citizens," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet too criticised India on the citizenship law. In fact, Bachelet filed an intervention application in the top court and offered her assistance as an amicus curiae. "While reducing the risk of refoulement for certain communities, the CAA unequally places other communities at such risk. Accordingly, the narrow scope of the CAA, which extends protection from return only on religious grounds and limited to the specific ethnoreligious groups, may not be sufficiently objective and reasonable in light of the broad prohibition of refoulement under international human rights law," Bachelet's plea said.
Leaders of countries like Turkey, Iran and Malaysia too expressed their apprehensions. "We have seen certain comments made on the recent incidents of violence in Delhi. At this stage, we would like to highlight that the situation is fast returning to normal," the Ministry of External Affairs had said responding to the global criticism. On Bachelet's plea, the MEA asserted that CAA is an "internal matter of India" and "no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India's sovereignty".