On Wednesday, a Constitutional Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud decided to commence hearings on October 17 for a series of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act of 1955.
Section 6A is a unique provision introduced into the 1955 Act as part of the ‘Assam Accord,’ a Memorandum of Settlement signed on August 15, 1985, between the government of Rajiv Gandhi and leaders of the Assam Movement. The accord aimed to safeguard and preserve the cultural, linguistic, and social identity of the Assamese people. It emerged following a six-year-long protest by the All Assam Students Union, seeking the identification and deportation of illegal immigrants, primarily from neighboring Bangladesh.
The Indian government maintains the legality of Section 6A and has urged the court to dismiss the petitions, which were filed nearly 40 years after the enactment of Section 6A.
According to Section 6A, foreigners who entered Assam before January 1, 1966, and were considered “ordinarily resident” in the state would enjoy all the rights and responsibilities of Indian citizens. Those who arrived in the state between January 1, 1966, and March 25, 1971, would have the same rights and obligations but would not be eligible to vote for ten years.
The petitions challenge the “discriminatory” nature of Section 6A in granting citizenship to immigrants, especially illegal ones. The petitioners, including Assam Public Works and others, argue that this special provision violates Article 6 of the Constitution, which sets the cut-off date for granting citizenship to immigrants as July 19, 1948.
One of the parties involved in the case, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, a civil society organization based in Guwahati, has requested the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam based on the 1951 NRC rather than the electoral rolls of March 1971.
In December 2014, the Supreme Court formulated 13 questions covering various aspects concerning the constitutionality of Section 6A, including whether it diminishes the “political rights of the citizens of the State of Assam,” whether it infringes upon the rights of the Assamese people to preserve their cultural heritage, and whether the influx of illegal migrants into India constitutes ‘external aggression’ and ‘internal disturbance,’ among other issues.
In 2015, a three-judge Bench of the court referred the case to a Constitutional Bench.
Throughout these years, the Section 6A case has remained pending, even as the Supreme Court oversaw the preparation and publication of the final Assam NRC list in August 2019, resulting in the exclusion of over 19 lakh individuals. These years also witnessed the enactment of the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which expedited citizenship for immigrants belonging to minority communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.