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Citizenship Amendment Act 2019: Supreme Court hints that matter may be heard by Constitution Bench, no order on stay

Shruti Mahajan

While hearing a batch of over 140 petitions challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, the Supreme Court today hinted that it may refer the matter to a Constitution Bench.

The Court today granted a period of four weeks to the Centre to file its counter in all the petitions filed in the matter. The Court, however, passed no orders on stay of the implementation of the Act or any of the exercises it stipulates.

The Court has also said that no High Courts would, in the meantime, take up any matters and petitions on this issue for decision.

The Bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde along with Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Sanjiv Khanna took the matter up for hearing this morning, following the issuance of notice in the pleas in December last year.

During the hearing, the Court was urged to postpone the implementation of the National Population Register (NPR) exercise by a few months. It was argued that that the same would cause irreversible changes as regards the status of one's citizenship.

Taking note of the multitude of petitions in the matter, the Court said that the list of all the categories under which the Act is challenged needs to be prepared. The Court has conferred the responsibility for the same upon Senior Counsel Kapil Sibal.

The issues concerning Assam and Tripura have a different footing as opposed to the general issues, the Court was told by the counsel for the petitioners from Assam. The Act also makes a distinction for the States of Assam and Tripura, the counsel added.

The Court thus said that though the issues would be seen separately by the Court, the matters will all be heard together.

The Court also added that some small matters in the issue may be taken up by the Court in chambers.

Whereas Attorney General KK Venugopal sought for six weeks' time to file counters, particularly given that about 80 petitions on the subject had been filed since issuance of notice, the petitioners' counsel opposed this request.

Also appearing for the State, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had suggested that there be a freeze on filing further petitions in the case. Mehta proposed instead that others who wished to to be heard in the matter may file intervention applications.

Read more on the major takeaways from today's hearing below.

Court hints at referring the CAA challenge to a larger Bench

Earlier in the hearing, Senior Counsel Rajeev Dhavan suggested that the Court hear the petitioners on two broad issues, i.e. one, on whether the matter needs to be heard by a Constitution Bench; and secondly, on whether there be an irreversible situation if the CAA is implemented.

Whereas the Court also pointed out that a larger Bench is due to hear the Sabarimala issue, Senior Counsel Indira Jaising intervened to submit, "Priorities will have to be set, My Lord."

CAA with respect to Assam and Tripura will be viewed differently

While it clarified that all matters would be heard together, the Bench observed that the case would be bifurcated into two broad aspects i.e. the validity of the CAA generally and its validity from the view point of Assam and Tripura.

A request that petitions concerning Assam and Tripura be heard differently was made during the hearing by some of the counsel.

No ex-parte interim relief, says Supreme Court

The petitioners today urged the Supreme Court to postpone the operation of the CAA, 2019 as an interim measure.

On this aspect, Senior counsel Vikas Singh made submissions for the grant of interim relief, particularly with respect to the situation in Assam. He argued that there was a unique situation when it comes to Assam. When the cut-off date concerning naturalisation of citizens in Assam under the Citizenship Act was extended from 1948 to 1971, it was challenged before the Court. The same is pending and under consideration of a Constitution Bench, Singh submitted.

The Court, however, responded that if he wished to press for interim relief on this count, he had to first serve a copy of the plea to the Centre.

"We are not going to pass an ex parte order without the copy being served to the Centre", said CJI Bobde.

As the Court mulled over referring the petitions to a larger Bench, Senior Counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi proposed the reference may be made today and that the service of notice may be completed in the meanwhile (until the larger Bench takes up the case).

Sibal suggested that the National Population Register (NPR) exercise also be postponed by a few months. AG Venugopal, however, objected to the suggestion to "stay" the NPR. Whereas Sibal insisted that he was only seeking the postponement of the exercise, the Supreme Court concurred with AG Venugopal's view that what was being sought was actually a stay.

"You are asking for a stay without using the express words of stay."

CJI SA Bobde

Senior Counsel KV Viswanathan attempted to urge to Court to re-consider the grant of interim relief since the NPR exercise provides for "doubtful" status on one's citizenship.

Singhvi echoed the concern, while informing the Court that in Uttar Pradesh, several households have already been marked out to hint at doubtful status. Sibal added that these people may lose voting rights. He further pointed out this development came even though rules are yet to be framed under the CAA, 2019.

Nevertheless, the Court simply issued notice today in all the petitions filed in the matter, and listed the matter for interim relief after five weeks.

[Read the Order]

Indian Union of Muslim League vs UOI (CAA cases) - January 22.pdf
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