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Understanding what The Right to Equality Promises

Context:

The regulations of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, were recently officially implemented. This legislation is currently under scrutiny in the Supreme Court, with claims that it breaches Article 14 of the Constitution. This presents a significant moment for the Court to potentially redefine not only the citizenship law but also its approach to assessing alleged infringements of the constitutional principle of equality.

Relevance:

GS2-

  • Government Policies and Interventions
  • India and its Neighbourhood

Mains Question:

The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to reshape not just the citizenship law, but also the way in which it judges alleged violations of our constitutional guarantee of equality. Analyse in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019:

The foundation of India’s citizenship laws can be traced back to the constitution, specifically Articles 5-11, and the Citizenship Act of 1955, which outlined provisions for citizenship acquisition through birth, descent, registration, and naturalization.

Eligibility:

The CAA amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 to grant eligibility for Indian citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Definition of illegal migrants:

  • An illegal migrant is someone who enters India without valid travel documents or overstays beyond the permitted duration, potentially facing prosecution, deportation, or imprisonment.
  • Those belonging to the aforementioned communities who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, are not considered illegal immigrants, thus providing a pathway to naturalization.
  • However, the Muslim community is excluded from these provisions.

Relaxation:

  • The amendment reduced the residency requirement from 11 years to 6 years for these communities to become eligible for Indian citizenship through naturalization.
  • Members of these communities are exempted from prosecution under the Foreigners Act of 1946 and the Passport Act of 1920.
  • Applicants from these communities are not classified as “illegal immigrants.”

Exception:

The amendments concerning illegal migrants do not apply to specific tribal areas (under Sixth Schedule) in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura, as well as states regulated by the “Inner Line” permit under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations 1873.

The Reasonable Classification Test:

  • The standard test used to assess these violations is the ‘reasonable classification’ test. Under this test, the Court evaluates whether there is a clear distinction between different groups and whether this distinction is directly related to achieving the government’s objectives.
  • During the parliamentary discussions on the Bill, the Home Minister asserted that it adhered to this test. According to him, it pertained to persecuted minorities who had sought refuge in India from neighboring countries, aiming to grant them full citizenship rights.
  • While this argument is legally plausible, one might argue that it should extend to other persecuted groups, such as the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan. Ordinarily, this would weaken the Home Minister’s argument.
  • However, historically, the Court has granted the state considerable leeway in potential violations of equality laws. For instance, in Charanjit Lal Chowdhury v. Union of India (1950), the Court stated that “the Legislature is free to recognize degrees of harm and it may confine its restrictions to those cases where the harm is deemed to be the clearest.” Applying this standard, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) might be deemed constitutional.
  • This is where the dilemma arises. The classification test originated from U.S. jurisprudence in 1950 and has since undergone refinement and critique, becoming an integral part of equality law. It has evolved to the point where it is almost synonymous with our understanding of equality guarantees.

The Method of Application of the Reasonable Classification Test:

  • What often goes overlooked is that the classification test serves as a tool for the Court to determine whether state actions would breach equality. However, the true safeguard provided by the Constitution lies not in the test itself, but in how the test is applied.
  • Equality is a dynamic concept, and the reasonable classification test was devised to precisely address it. Yet, this precision isn’t always achieved. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) may satisfy this test yet fail to align with our constitutional values.
  • The exclusion of certain persecuted minorities without apparent justification is troubling, particularly because it entails discrimination based on religion, contradicting the principle of secularism. The standard formulation of the classification test often fails to consider these nuances.
  • This isn’t to suggest that it’s incapable of doing so. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, during the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, emphasized that Article 14 embodies significant values and reducing it to a mere classification exercise may overlook the essence of equality.
  • Other judges have also sought to strengthen the classification test. However, these efforts are temporary fixes. Either the test is adapted to produce fairer outcomes, or a new test emerges.

The ‘Manifest Arbitrariness’ Test:

  • The recent development of the ‘manifest arbitrariness’ test by the Court represents the latter response, but unfortunately, it lacks clear parameters.
  • Unlike the reasonable classification test, it lacks specificity, with the Court offering little guidance beyond defining “manifest arbitrariness” as actions lacking adequate determining policy or principle, a definition open to various interpretations. This vagueness isn’t ideal for a judicial test meant to define a nuanced concept like equality.
  • What is needed is a thorough reconsideration of what the right to equality entails. This doesn’t necessarily entail completely discarding the old test, but rather, it requires a radical overhaul.

Way Forward:

  • The Court must delve deeper than its current line of questioning. It must expand and refine the constitutional concept of equality.
  • The traditional notion of ‘treating equals equally and unequals unequally’ has revealed its shortcomings. This will involve a deeply theoretical exercise, but it’s essential for a more robust constitutional framework.
  • Additionally, the Court must pose more incisive queries to the state. For example, why have Ahmadiyya Muslims been excluded, and what is the precise number of immigrants from each country, categorized by religion?
  • Each of these inquiries will scrutinize the state’s purported justifications against this new conception of equality.
  • While such questions may be integrated into the classification test, they are not its fundamental components.
  • Their application relies on the Court’s active engagement with the principles emanating from Article 14. Leaving critical questions of constitutional law subject to such discretion is problematic and lies at the heart of the issue.

Conclusion:

The current legal and constitutional challenge to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) presents a timely opportunity for this endeavor because the Act contradicts several of our understandings of equality and the government’s obligations as dictated by the Constitution. Questions of such significance demand a clear differentiation between the principle itself and the method used to assess it. It is important to recognize that only the former is sacrosanct.


June 2024
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