During their summer vacation, judges of the Supreme Court will be taking up for hearing three questions of such constitutiol importance, which if not heard now, in Chief Justice J S Khehar’s words “will not be decided for years together.” From May 11 onwards, three constitutiol benches will take continuous hearings on the validity of triple talaq, the right to privacy for social media users, and granting Indian citizenship to children born in this country of illegal migrants, along with the base year overall for determining citizenship. For people of Assam, May 2017 could well be a crucial month with socio–political developments of grave import. For us, the question uppermost to be taken up by the apex court goes like this — is it discrimitory and unconstitutiol that entry of foreigners into Assam is permitted under the Assam Accord till March 25, 1971, while for the rest of the country the cut–off date as prescribed under Articles 5 and 6 of the Constitution is July 19, 1949? The five–judge constitutiol bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur, along with Justices DY Chandrachud, RK Agrawal, PC Pant and Ashok Bhushan will deal with 13 questions related to the constitutiol validity of Section 6A of Citizenship Act 1955, referred to it by an SC divisiol bench in December 2014. This section makes special provisions for citizenship of persons covered by Assam Accord, with foreigners entering Assam before 1 January, 1966 getting Indian citizenship outright, while those entering the State between 1 January, 1966 to 25 March, 1971 mandated to get citizenship after a cooling off period for 10 years during which their mes will not figure in electoral rolls. So if the apex court strikes down Section 6A as unconstitutiol, it would ring the death knell of Assam Accord. It would also bring the NRC update exercise to a grinding halt, in which the 1971 electoral rolls form one of the three key documents for proving Indian citizenship.
Considering the enormous stakes involved, it may be ironical but hardly surprising that the AASU and the AGP, one the spearhead and the other the child of Assam Agitation, find themselves on the same side with the Congress and the AIUDF in the Supreme Court — pleading before the constitutiol bench that the base year for detecting and deporting foreigners should remain 1971, and not taken all the way back to 1951. It is an explosive political issue in the making, since lakhs of Bangladeshi immigrants came to Assam during the two decades between 1951 and 1971. In fact, attempts were made by certain quarters during the assembly elections last year to capitalise on the ‘1951 as base year’ demand. In the Supreme Court, those arguing for 1951 include the Assam Sanmilita Mahasanga (ASM), Assam Public Works (APW), Assam Sahitya Sabha and All Assam Ahoms Association, which in turn have been supported by some tribal bodies like the Indigenous Tribal People’s Front (ITPF). When the Assam Accord was signed, AASU and AAGSP leaders faced some hard questions about accepting 1971 as base year, when the movement had been run with the demand for 1951 as base year, so much so that the Centre’s earlier proposal for 1966 as base year had been rejected out of hand. It was then touted around that the Government of India had to honour commitments made under the India–Bangladesh Friendship Treaty of 1972 (more commonly known as the Indira–Mujib pact which Indian Parliament was yet to ratify). With New Delhi still at pains to have a friendly regime in Dhaka — so as not to be boxed in by Chi and Pakistan and prevent extremists operating from Bangladesh soil — how the rendra Modi government deals with the fallout in case of any adverse SC ruling on the foreigners issue will be keenly observed here.
Another key question that the SC constitutiol bench will also take up is whether the children of illegal migrants born in India should get the benefit of Section 3 of the Citizenship Act, as it stands amended. Referred by the SC divisiol bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F riman in July 2015, this question will bring under scanner this particular section which grants citizenship by birth to anyone born in this country on or after the 26 January, 1950 but before 1 July, 1987; it also grants citizenship to those having either parent as Indian citizen, born in this country on or after 1 July, 1987 but before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003. It has long been known that after signing the Assam Accord in 1985, the then Congress regime at the Centre did its best to negate it by various means, including the insertion of this provision one year later which regularized at one stroke lakhs of foreigners as citizens by birth. Over the years, successive governments at the Centre and in Assam have treated Assam Accord as a dead document, so much so that the Assam Accord Implementation Department remains bereft of basic infrastructure and facilities to this day, a moribund department to which officials are considered to be posted as a punishment. The Centre has seen it fit to hold tripartite talks over the Accord recently after 12 long years since 2005. It is promising ‘no dilution’ while the AASU is insisting on ‘time–bound’ implementation. Committees have been formed to oversee implementation of constitutiol and economic safeguards to indigenous people, when the controversy over defining the indigenous as ‘Assamese’ under the Accord is yet to be resolved. The politics over Assam Accord has led this State nowhere; it is high time for the law to be upheld after the apex court cuts the Gordian knot once and for all.