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Assam Citizenship Case: SC Tells Union Govt to Give Details on Undocumented Immigrants in Northeast

The apex court’s directives have come during the hearing of a bunch of petitions opposed to, and in support of, Section 6A inserted into the Citizenship Act 1955 with the approval of Parliament for the state of Assam.
The Supreme Court of India. Photo: Pinakpani/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has directed the Union government to furnish data on the inflow of immigrants, illegally, to the northeastern states after March 24, 1971, and inform it about the steps taken at an administrative level to deal with the issue, particularly in Assam.

The apex court’s directives have come during the hearing of a bunch of petitions opposed to, and in support of, Section 6A inserted into the Citizenship Act 1955 with the approval of Parliament for the state of Assam. Section 6A of the Act was accepted by Parliament in tandem with the memorandum of agreement, popularly known as the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 between the leaders of the anti-foreigner agitation in the state and the Union and state governments to address the issue of immigrants entering the state without documents. The section allows foreign migrants to become Indian citizens if they had entered Assam till January 1, 1966, adding the provision that those who had entered after that date till March 24, 1971, should also be considered for citizenship provided they are registered and their voting rights deferred for two consecutive terms.

While several petitions are in support of the section approved by Parliament, some others are opposed to it on the ground that there should be a common citizenship rule for the entire country, and allowing such immigrants to become citizens and voters in Assam would change the state’s demography and thereby affect the local community’s culture, language and political rights.

On day one of the hearing on December 5, the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud had orally observed that the special section was enacted by Parliament for Assam considering humanitarian aspects due to the Liberation War of Bangladesh with which the north-eastern state shares a long border. The chief justice said it had to be seen in the light of the vital role that India played in the liberation of Bangladesh.

The CJI had stated that India’s role in that liberation movement seems to have led Parliament proceed on the basis that the immigration that took place due to it couldn’t purely be regarded as illegal but humanitarian. The constitutional bench also includes Justices Surya Kant, M.M. Sundresh, J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

The bench then asked Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta to provide details on how many people had benefitted from the section since its enactment, also noting that it has nothing in front of it to deduce that the cultural rights of the people were affected by such immigration.

The bench had orally remarked that the government of the day must be given some leeway to make compromises for the nation’s wellbeing and that can’t be judged on the basis of hindsight wisdom.

In December 2014, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had framed 13 questions encompassing various issues around the constitutionality of Section 6A, including whether the cultural and political rights of the Assamese people were diluted by the provision.

In 2015, the bench referred the case to a five-judge constitutional bench which has resumed the hearing early this week.

The hearing of the case comes at a time when the country is close to the 2024 parliamentary elections when Narendra Modi would be seeking a third term. In the run-up to the 2014 and 2019 polls, the alleged threat of ‘illegal immigrants’ (read Muslims from Bangladesh) on Assam and Bengal and the need for a provision in the Act to protect and grant citizenship to three groups of people including Hindus from Bangladesh in Assam and elsewhere were used as political tools by the ruling party during its campaigning.

Recently, two of Modi’s ministers have reiterated that rules to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be readied soon. This special provision is likely to come to the aid of a large swathe of voters across Bengal and Assam.

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