Following the Centre’s notification of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last Friday, already intense protests against it have stepped up further in Assam. Meanwhile, as many as 61 petitions have been filed in different high courts against the discriminatory nature of the Act, arguing that it violates basic constitutional principles. The Supreme Court has issued notice to all petitioners for a consolidated hearing in the apex court. SC’s recent Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid judgment has been described as pragmatic, in that it severely strictured the demolition of the mosque yet awarded the site to those who want to build a Ram temple. On the CAA issue the apex court has an opportunity to pass a judgment that’s pragmatic, constitutional, and swiftly restores peace by foreclosing an issue causing mass anxiety, division and strife in society at large.
A group of 106 former civil servants, including a former National Security Adviser, have penned an open letter critiquing CAA, and the legislative framework underpinning the National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). They make a compelling case by highlighting how these legislations enable arbitrary exercise of power by the bureaucracy. NPR is not linked to the decadal Census; it flows from the powers conferred by the Citizenship Act and can serve as a master document to prepare a register of citizens. Given that other documents such as passports and voter cards evidence citizenship, there is no compelling reason to carry out yet another exercise to prepare a citizens’ register.
Indeed, the notified rules which detail the process are deeply flawed. They endow junior bureaucracy with enormous powers; documents evidencing citizenship can be set aside. Add to that CAA’s discriminatory character. By excluding a major religion, CAA violates fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.
SC can devise an elegant solution to cut the unseemly Gordian knot of legislation now roiling the country, by ruling CAA ultra vires of the Constitution on these grounds. Without CAA the NDA would be forced to drop a nationwide NRC, as otherwise its rigours would fall equally on all sections of the population, including those whose votes it needs. With many states refusing to co-operate in these pointless exercises, the federal character of India’s polity would be restored. And BJP would have reason to be happy too, as it would have a face saving way of backing out of an unworkable impasse. It would be a win-win resolution for all.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.