Battle for India’s new citizenship law moves to top court

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s top court yesterday began hearing dozens of petitions seeking the revocation of amendments to the citizenship law following nationwide protests and a security crackdown that led to more than 20 deaths.

The Supreme Court would not grant a stay before hearing from the government, which has argued the law is a humanitarian gesture allowing citizenship for people fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, the head of a three-judge panel, told the courtroom he will decide on the case only after the government has replied to all the petitions in four weeks. He also asked a larger, five-judge constitutional panel to take part in the decision.

The law Parliament approved in December sparked vehement opposition. Protesters, political opponents and constitutional lawyers have said it is discriminatory because it excludes certain religious group.

The nationwide protests numbering in the tens of thousands appear to be the fiercest public criticism Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has faced.

Protesters hold placards and national flags as they take part in a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law in Kolkata. PHOTO: AFP

Modi’s party has downplayed the protests as orchestrated by opponents. His powerful Home Minister Amit Shah said the government will not retreat on the law.

“Those who want to protest may continue doing so,” Shah said on Tuesday at a public rally in Lucknow.

Most of the petitions argue that the law undermines the first sentence of the preamble to the Indian Constitution, which defines the country as secular, and violates Article 14, which guarantees equality before the law.

“We believe the court will certainly take into consideration the views expressed by all these sections of people, and they will come to a conclusion that it (law) is against the Constitution of India,” said petitioner KM Kader Mohideen.

Modi’s government and proponents of the changes say Muslim immigrants still could attain citizenship through the existing naturalisation process.

“Because it is a well-drafted legislation, with a specific purpose, for a specific group of people, there is really no problem on it passing the muster,” said Aishwarya Bhati, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court who supports the government’s move.