The Supreme Court on Monday said it would hear on October 31 a batch of pleas challenging the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014.
A bench comprising Chief Justice U.U. Lalit and Justice S.R. Bhat noted the matter would be referred to a three-judge bench.
The 2019 amended law, which seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, and Parsi communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, has come in for stinging criticism by opposition parties, leaders, and other entities over the exclusion of Muslims.
During the hearing on Monday, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the bench that several issues have been raised in the petitions filed before the top court.
"Our reply is filed so far as some amendments and challenges are concerned. In some of the matters, our reply is yet to be filed," he said.
Mehta said some time would be required for preparation and also for the hearing of the matter.
The bench said the office of the Solicitor General should prepare a complete list of matters which shall be put in different segments depending upon the challenge raised in the petitions.
"The Union of India shall thereafter file its appropriate responses with respect to these segments of challenges," the bench said, adding, "Let the needful on that behalf be done within four weeks from today."
The bench noted that its attention had been invited to the apex court's January 22, 2020 order, in terms of which matters coming from Assam and North-East were already directed to be segregated.
"List these matters before the court for direction on October 31," it said, adding, "In the meantime, let notices be issued in all fresh matters wherever notice until now has not been issued by this court."
"Put the house in order and take it that we will be making a reference to a three-judge combination," the bench orally observed. Speaking on the matter, Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing in the case, said these are "significant matters hanging fire for a very long time", and they need to be heard and decided quickly.
"We just had a discussion on the point of whether we should make a reference to at least three judges of this court. What I felt was let all these preliminaries be over, and then we can make a reference," Justice Lalit observed.
A total of 220 petitions were listed for hearing, including the lead plea by the Indian Union Muslim League. In January 2020, the apex court made it clear it would not stay the operation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act without hearing the Centre.
The top court had also restrained high courts in the country from proceedings on pending petitions on the issue.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), one of the petitioners that have challenged the CAA, has said the Act violates the fundamental right to equality and intends to grant citizenship to a section of illegal immigrants by making an exclusion based on religion.
The plea by IUML, filed through advocate Pallavi Pratap, seeks an interim stay on the operation of the law. One of the pleas filed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has said the Act is a "brazen attack" on core fundamental rights envisaged under the Constitution and treats "equals as unequal".
The plea has said: "The impugned act creates two classifications, viz., the classification on the basis of religion and the classification on the basis of geography, and both the classifications are completely unreasonable and share no rational nexus to the object of the impugned act, i.e., to provide shelter, safety, and citizenship to communities who in their native country are facing persecution on the grounds of religion," the plea has said.
Several other petitions have been filed challenging the constitutional validity of the amended law, including those by RJD leader Manoj Jha, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi.
The Muslim body Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, All Assam Students Union (AASU), Peace Party, CPI, NGO 'Rihai Manch', advocate M L Sharma, and law students have also approached the apex court challenging the Act.
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