The Constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act: A Response

[This is a guest post by Shivam Singhania. The piece was written before the passage of the Bill into an Act, and the constitutional challenge to the Act. References to the “Bill”, therefore, may be understood as references to the Act.]

This piece is in response to the piece on this blog titled “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is Unconstitutional”. Respectfully disagreeing with the author, I shall endeavour to address the arguments against its constitutionality, and also chart out a path within the bounds of the settled judicial precedent on Article 14.

The bill changes amends the Citizenship Act on two counts – by inserting a proviso in Section 2(1)(b), and by amending clause (d) of the Third Schedule. The first count, i.e., the proviso, provides that ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’ will not be treated as an illegal immigrant under the Act, subject to three conditions: (a) he/she entered India on or before December 31, 2014, (b) is exempted by the Central Government under Section 3(2)(b) of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, (c) is exempted from the application of Foreigners Act, 1946.

(Note: The Passport Act empowers the Central Government to make rules requiring persons entering India to possess passports. It also gives the Central Government power to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, any person or class of persons from complying with such requirements. The Foreigners Act empowers the Central Government to make orders prohibiting, regulating, restricting entry of non-citizens, i.e., foreigners into India. The Central Government also has the power to exempt any individual or class or description of foreigner from the application of the act. The exemptions for Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals were issued in 2015, and included Afghanistan nationals in 2016. These exemptions have not been challenged. Further, the same classification exists for the purpose of issuing Long Term Visas (LTV) to nationals of these three countries. The same has also not been challenged.)

The second count, i.e., amendment to the Third Schedule, relaxes the time-criteria for naturalization from at least 11 out of 14 years to at least 5 out of 14 years of residing in India, or being in service of the Government, for ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan’.

Admittedly, the constitutional questions rest on the issue of discrimination and non-adherence to ‘equal protection of law’.


The Constitutional position, right from Anwar Ali Sarkar to a catena of subsequent cases, is clear that the equality principle envisages like to be treated alike, and consequently allows unlike to be treated differently. Such differentiation, however, has to stand the test of intelligible differentia, i.e. that the basis or principle guiding the creation of different groups meant to be treated differently by the law should be ascertainable and sound. Further, such differentia should have a rational nexus to the object of the law, meaning that t should directly further the purpose that the law seeks to fulfil. Subsequently, the test of arbitrariness was also added in E.P. Royappa.

The classification in this amendment, as rightly described by the author, is on two counts: first – religion of the target group, i.e., Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians; and second – country of origin of these groups, i.e., Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It will be shown in the course of this essay that the principles that ground the above classifications are intelligible and not under-inclusive and serve the object of the amendment and overall, are not arbitrary.


Over and above the generality of equality principle laid out in Article 14, Article 15 provides for prohibition of discrimination on specific grounds, such as race, sex, and also religion. This means that any such basis of classification, even if intelligible, cannot pass muster of Article 14 for reason of the specific prohibition in Article 15.

However, Article 15 applies only to citizens. On the other hand Article 14 applies to ‘any person’. Thus, as settled in Chandrima Das and Indo-China Steam Navigation cases, a non-citizen cannot take the benefit of Article 15. Thus, with respect to non-citizens, a classification which has religious inklings cannot be dismissed at the threshold; it will pass muster if it passes the tests of Article 14 discussed above.

We now address the author’s argument based on the concurring judgement of Justice Malhotra in Navtej Johar v Union of India. The author’s inference from certain portions of Justice Malhotra’s opinion Navtej Johar is misplaced. The quoted paragraph – “Race, caste, sex, and place of birth are aspects over which a person has no control, ergo they are immutable. On the other hand, religion is a fundamental choice of a person. Discrimination based on any of these grounds would undermine an individual’s personal autonomy” – lays out the underlying constitutional intent of Article 15. It does not, and is not meant to address the point of whether such grounds transcend Article 15, and apply as a bar upon classification ipso facto, including for non-citizens under Article 14

The following exposition from the judgment, admittedly, is unequivocal: “Where a legislation discriminates on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual, it cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia”. However, what begs an answer, and none is provided in clear terms by any judicial precedent, is whether certain grounds, beyond those in Article 15 and thus applicable to non-citizens, are barred at the threshold as the bases of any classification; if yes, then what are these grounds and do ‘intrinsic and core trait(s) of an individual’ qualify as such grounds?

Essentially, the submission of the author, relying on Justice Malhotra’s opinion, is that any classification with semblance to religion is impermissible, since like Article 15, which applies only for citizens, Article 14 contains an inherent bar upon classification on certain grounds, one of which is the notion of core trait/choice/personal autonomy (and religion is a part of that). This, however, has little basis in existing equality jurisprudence. The tests are clear and any classification can exist so long as the tests of Article 14 are met. Beyond that, no inherent barriers have been created for classification under Article 14.

In any case, the proposition that classification rests solely on religion should be taken with scepticism. In the CAA, religion is qualified by persecution. Therefore the two should be considered together. Religion persecution has also been recognized in the Refugee Convention as a form of persecution. Therefore, it cannot be considered as a capricious standard of marking the lines, given that the exact target groups are sought to be protected as recognized by International Convention. Further, the classification is not to create new benefits, but is only to accelerate an existing process as a measure of protection for recognizable and internationally accepted target group that, due to their precarious situation, need such protection. It is akin to any law which may be framed for instance to protect LGBT individuals from countries which provide for capital punishment for them. In that case, it will be a constitutional disservice to accept an argument that they cannot be allowed a dignified life in India because the law classifies on the basis of sex/sexual orientation.


A classic fallacy with the arguments on under-inclusiveness, also reflected in the author’s piece, is that its proponents enlarge either the principle determining classification, or the object of the law beyond their actual bounds, to argue that the classification is narrower than it ought to be.

It will be shown that the author’s purported principles determining the classification is deliberately broad, and the actual principle is more qualified. Therefore, when the purpose is defined properly, the classification is not under-inclusive.

The author, in her piece, considers four principles and finds them inadequate. For convenience, they are reproduced below –

  1. “Principle 1: Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of British India. Illegal immigrants from there could still generically be considered of Indian origin. However, with the inclusion of Afghanistan, it is evident that the classification is not based on the principle of divided India and undivided India.
  2. Principle 2: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a State religion. However, the classification cannot be on the basis of a State religion, as Sri Lanka prescribes Buddhism as the State religion.
  3. Principle 3: Degrees of harm. In Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury it was held that the legislature is free to recognize the degrees of harm and confine the classification to where harm is the clearest. However, if the CAB is based on the degrees of harm then the Rohingyas of Myanmar ought to be included as the 2013 UN report states that the Rohingyas are the most persecuted in the world.
  4. Principle 4: The classification might be limited to singling out persecuted religious minoritiesHowever, on this logic, Sri Lankan Eelam Tamils must also be included, as the Tamil Eelams are persecuted based on religion (Hinduism) and ethnicity.”

The classic problem of “inadequate principle” is at issue here. The above four principles, if applied, result in the law leaving out some group who ought to qualify. However, it is quite possible that the alleged principles are not actually the principles on which the classification is based.

In this context, let us begin by noting that laying down adequate determining principle for classification in a law lies at the doorstep of the Parliament.

It is submitted that here, the determining principle is not solely based on Partition, or harm. It is also not only about state religion or secular states, or about religious minorities. Determining principles cannot be laid in water-tight compartments, and it is not necessary that the entirety of one ground has to make a determining principle (for instance “all minorities”, or “all persecuted”). More than one ground can qualify the other grounds if the determining principle is specific (for instance, not all minorities but religious minorities, or not all persecuted but persecuted for being a religious minority).

While one set of determining principles takes in the Partition (Pakistan and Bangladesh), and the unique situation of Afghanistan vis-a-vis India, another possible set of principles is not Partition-related. India sees its responsibility as a regional leader in its neighbourhood with a thriving democracy and secular credentials to protect certain classes of foreigners under threat in their own countries. Among many forms of persecution, for now, India considers itself sufficiently prepared to be able to imbibe as citizens through a relaxed process of naturalization, those persecuted on the basis of religion. The next question is, who all and from where all?

The principle is members of communities (religion) not being the state religion of the respective nation. Essentially, it is a loose combination of Principle 2 and 4 described by the author. In other words, the broad sphere of ‘religious minority’ is qualified by its application only with respect to nations with state religions and on minorities being non-believers of the state religion. This is clearer with the altered text of bill, as being circulated in the media, by which the phrase “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindu, Sikh…” has been replaced with “persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh…”. [Editor’s Note: this is now the text of the Act.]

Therefore, it can no more be argued that the genus was ‘minority community’, and that only six of them cannot be protected (i.e., under-inclusion). The principle is shortened from ‘minority community’ to a principle which is qualified by two other components – applicable to states with a state religion, and applicable for religions not being the state religion. In other words, the principle is narrower than presented. Hence non-inclusion of some is not because of under-inclusion, but because they are not in conformity with the principle for classification. (such as Ismailis or Shias, being another sect of Islam and not a separate religion than Islam), or Myanmar, not included for not having a state religion.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have a state religion, i.e., Islam. The Sri Lankan Constitution gives Buddhism the foremost place and the Myanmarese Constitution only recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith practiced by majority. In any case, if it is still considered that Sri Lanka has a state religion, courts may also take cognizance of data, if provided by the Union of India, of the alleged dwindling rate of the minority population in Pakistan, Afghanistan (less than 1% presently) and Bangladesh (from 23% at independence to 9% presently) of the communities sought to be protected vis-à-vis Sri Lanka (28 % in 1953 to 20% presently) to gather the mischief that the amendment seeks to arrest.


The classification under Article 14 does not have inherent barriers of impermissibility at the threshold level, and nor does it have to conform to Article 15 when invoked with respect to non-citizens. In this case, the only test needs to be satisfied is the intelligible differentia-rational nexus-non-arbitrariness test of Article 14. The principle underlying the classification is not merely minority or religious minority, but of belonging to group other than the state religion of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan (i.e. states with a constitutionally prescribed state religion). The classification with respect to states with state religions, for the benefit of persons not following the state religion, bears a rational nexus with the object of the amendment in protecting such persons facing threat of persecution for reason of non-conformity with their state religion and being eligible for relaxed criteria of immigration and naturalisation in India, and in furtherance of India’s responsibility as the leader in its nation with strong democratic values and emphasis on dignity of life to support victims of religious persecution in theocratic states. The classification, having semblance to a category of vulnerability recognized in international convention and supported empirically (possibly) is therefore not arbitrary.

The Constitutional Challenge to S. 6A of the Citizenship Act (Assam Accord): A Primer

Tomorrow, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will commence hearings in the constitutional challenge to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act. The case comes up for hearing as the result of a referral order under Article 145(3) of the Constitution, passed by a bench of two judges in Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha vs Union of Indiawho framed thirteen questions of law to be decided by a Constitution Bench.

Tomorrow’s hearing may be a brief one. The Bench has indicated that it is unlikely to hear the matter unless all counsel commit to finishing within seven working days. Given the scale and complexity of some of the questions (as we shall see), as well as the number of intervention applications that were allowed after the referral, this is unlikely. In light of the fact, however, that even if it is not heard at the present, it is likely to be taken up soon after the vacations (in July or August), I shall provide a brief primer to the case.


Migration has been a source of social and political conflict in the border-state of Assam at least the middle of the 19th century. During the framing of the citizenship provisions of the Constitution during the Constituent Assembly Debates, the representative from Assam highlighted issues pertaining to large-scale migration from Bengal, its impact upon the indigenous population and culture, and asked for specific constitutional provisions to deal with the issue. Ultimately, however, the Constitution contained only skeletal provisions on citizenship – in particular, to deal with the Partition – and left the issue to be addressed by Parliament. Article 5 of the Constitution incorporated the broad jus soli principle of citizenship, stipulating that all those who had their domicile in India at the time of the commencement of the Constitution, would be citizens if they were born here, if either of their parents were born here, or who had been ordinarily resident for not less than five years. Articles 6 and 7 were the Partition provisions, dealing with migrations to and from Pakistan, and fixing 19th July 1948 as the “cut-off date” for citizenship. And to clarify that these provisions were only dealing with the special situation created by the Partition, Article 11 contained an overriding clause authorising Parliament to legislate for citizenship. Parliament did so in 1955, with the Citizenship Act, and a special law for Assam titled the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act of 1950.

To regulate the entry of migrants into India, the colonial government had passed the Foreigners Act of 1946, which continued even after Independence. This Act conferred powers upon the government to prohibit entry of foreigners, among other things. In 1964, acting under the authority of the Act, the Government promulgated the Foreigners Tribunal Order. This Order authorised the Government to establish Tribunals to determine questions of nationality, in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act. Consequently, the Constitution of India, the Citizenship Act of 1955, the Foreigners Act of 1946, and the Foreigners Tribunal Order of 1964 comprised a comprehensive statutory regime dealing with both substantive and procedural questions of citizenship and migration.

Meanwhile, issues of migration continued to cause conflict in Assam. Matters came to a head during the run-up to the Bangladesh War of 1971, where in fact a massive influx of refugees into India from (what was then) East Pakistan was cited as one of the reasons for India’s involvement in the war. The issues did not cease even after 1971, however, because it was perceived that many of “illegal immigrants” were being put on voting rolls by political parties attempting to create faithful constituencies. Ultimately, this led to a state-wide student movement called the Assam Agitation, which lasted six years, from 1979 to 1985. The movement was sometimes punctuated by violence, including the Nellie massacre of 1983. It was finally brought to a close in 1985, with the signing of the Assam Accord between the Government of India, and the leaders of the movement.

The Assam Accord, S. 6A of the Citizenship Act, and the IMDT Act 

The Assam Accord was effectively a political compromise between the government and the leaders of the Assam Agitation. While providing for two separate cut-off dates for regularisation of migrants (an issue we shall discuss in a moment), the Accord also contained provisions for the development of Assam, as well as obligating the Government to see that “the international border shall be made secure against future infiltration by erection of physical barriers like walls, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles at appropriate places.”

Section 6A of the Citizenship Act – introduced through an amendment in 1985 – was the legislative enactment of the legal part of the Assam Accord. Section 6A divided “illegal” immigrants of Indian origin (i.e., those whose parents or grandparents were born in undivided India) who came into Assam from Bangladesh into three groups: those who came into the state before 1966; those who came into the state between 1966 and 25th March, 1971 (the official date of the commencement of the Bangladesh War); and those who came into the state after 1971. The first group (pre-’66) was to be regularised. The second group (’66 – ’71) was to be taken off the electoral rolls, and regularised after ten years. The third group (’71-onwards) was to be detected and expelled in accordance with law.

Section 6A, therefore, was a special citizenship law for Assam, hammered out as a result of a political settlement. Meanwhile, two years before the Accord and S. 6A, the Parliament had also passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals Act) of 1983. This Act authorised the Government to set up Tribunals for the purposes of determining whether migrants were illegal. Under the Act, the Government framed the Illegal Migrant Rules of 1984. The Act and the Rules, taken together, made some departures from the procedure under the Foreigners Act and the Foreigners Tribunal Order: for example, the procedure for making a reference to the Tribunal was made more onerous, the burden of proof was shifted from the State to the individual, and so on.

Consequently, the statutory regime governing migration to Assam now became Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, read with the Illegal Migrants Act of 1983, and the Illegal Migrant Rules of 1984. While the Government defended this regime on the basis of protecting minorities, who were genuine citizens of India, from persecution they were also attacked as being too lax on illegal migration, and making it almost impossible to deport illegal migrants.

The Judgment in Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India

The Illegal Migrants Act and Rules were challenged before the Supreme Court in Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the statutory regime, with its reversal of the burden of proof clause (placing the burden of proof upon the State rather than the alleged illegal migrant), and its procedural requirements of filing applications (“… accompanied by affidavits sworn by not less than two persons residing within the jurisdiction of the same police station in which the person referred to in the application is found, or residing, corroborating the averments made in the application.“), was insufficient to check the problem of illegal migration. Relying upon a 1998 report by the Governor of Assam, the Supreme Court held that there was a flood of Bangladeshi migrants into Assam, which the statutory regime had failed to check. This, the Court held, amounted to “external aggression” against the State of Assam, and under Article 355 of the Constitution, it was the duty of the Union to protect every state against external aggression. Holding the statutory regime of the Illegal Migrants Act and Illegal Migrants Rules to be directly responsible for this failure, the Court held the Act and Rules to be unconstitutional.

After Sarbananda Sonowal, therefore, the Tribunals under the IMDT ceased to function, and the statutory regime reverted to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, and the Foreigners Act and the Foreigners Tribunal Order. The State’s attempt to get around this through passing the Foreigners Tribunal (for Assam) Order of 2006 was also struck down by the Court in Sarbananda Sonowal (II)

The Referral Order

It is in this context that the challenge to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act came before the Supreme Court. In his referral order, Justice Nariman framed thirteen questions of law:

“(i) Whether Articles 10 and 11 of the Constitution of India permit the enactment of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act in as much as Section 6A, in prescribing a cut-off date different from the cut-off date prescribed in Article 6, can do so without a “variation” of Article 6 itself; regard, in particular, being had to the phraseology of Article 4 (2) read with Article 368 (1)?

(ii) Whether Section 6A violates Articles 325 and 326 of the Constitution of India in that it has diluted the political rights of the citizens of the State of Assam;

(iii) What is the scope of the fundamental right contained in Article 29(1)? Is the fundamental right absolute in its terms? In particular, what is the meaning of the expression “culture” and the expression “conserve”? Whether Section 6A violates Article 29(1)?

(iv) Whether Section 6A violates Article 355? What is the true interpretation of Article 355 of the Constitution? Would an influx of illegal migrants into a State of India constitute “external aggression” and/or “internal disturbance”? Does the expression “State” occurring in this Article refer only to a territorial region or does it also include the people living in the State, which would include their culture and identity?

(v) Whether Section 6A violates Article 14 in that, it singles out Assam from other border States (which comprise a distinct class) and discriminates against it. Also whether there is no rational basis for having a separate cut-off date for regularizing illegal migrants who enter Assam as opposed to the rest of the country; and

(vi) Whether Section 6A violates Article 21 in that the lives and personal liberty of the citizens of Assam have been affected adversely by the massive influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

(vii) Whether delay is a factor that can be taken into account in moulding relief under a petition filed under Article 32 of the Constitution?

(viii) Whether, after a large number of migrants from East Pakistan have enjoyed rights as Citizens of India for over 40 years, any relief can be given in the petitions filed in the present cases?

(ix) Whether section 6A violates the basic premise of the Constitution and the Citizenship Act in that it permits Citizens who have allegedly not lost their Citizenship of East Pakistan to become deemed Citizens of India, thereby conferring dual Citizenship to such persons?

(x) Whether section 6A violates the fundamental basis of section 5 (1) proviso and section 5 (2) of the Citizenship Act (as it stood in 1985) in that it permits a class of migrants to become deemed Citizens of India without any reciprocity from Bangladesh and without taking the oath of allegiance to the Indian Constitution? 

(xi) Whether the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 being a special enactment qua immigrants into Assam, alone can apply to migrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh to the exclusion of the general Foreigners Act and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 made thereunder?

(xii) Whether Section 6A violates the Rule of Law in that it gives way to political expediency and not to Government according to law?

(xiii) Whether Section 6A violates fundamental rights in that no mechanism is provided to determine which persons are ordinarily resident in Assam since the dates of their entry into Assam, thus granting deemed citizenship to such persons arbitrarily?”

As we can see, these referral questions raise a host of complex issues about the interaction between the State’s sovereign power of conferring citizenship, the right to equal treatment, and the right to preservation of culture and identity; the interaction between rule of law and citizenship provisions arising as a result of political settlements; and the impact of a possible judgment of unconstitutionality upon vested rights that have stood for decades.

The Aftermath

After the referral order, some further petitions were filed, that were tagged with the main case. These included a petition asking that Section 3 of the Citizenship Act be read in a manner that children of illegal immigrants, when it came to Assam, ought not to be granted citizenship, on the basis that Section 6A was a comprehensive provision dealing with the issue of migration and citizenship in Assam. Petitions were also filed challenging the Foreigners (Amendment) Order of 2015 and the Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015, which stated that “persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before the 31 st December, 2014” would be granted exemption from application of the Foreigners Act and the Passport Rules. It is unclear whether the Court will take up these additional issues for hearing as well.

Either way, we shall know more about the progress of this case tomorrow.

(Disclosure: The writer is assisting the Respondents (AASU) in defending the constitutionality of S. 6A)