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India’s top court refuses to suspend citizenship law, again

Protesters hold placards and national flags as they take part in a demonstration against a new citizenship law, in Kolkata, India, on January 21, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

India’s top court has refused to suspend the implementation of a new controversial citizenship law that is widely considered anti-Muslim, saying a constitutional bench of five judges should hear the petitions and rule on the matter.

India’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday it would give Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government four weeks to reply to 144 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has triggered nationwide demonstrations since last month.

Opposition leaders, Muslim organizations, and student groups had petitioned the court to suspend the implementation of the law until the challenges to the legislation were settled.

“We will give you four weeks to file reply to all petitions,” Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde — who heads a three-bench panel — told the government’s top lawyer.

He also indicated that the next hearing would be held in late February.

Back in December last year, the court had similarly refused to stop the implementation of the law and agreed to hear the petitions.

The law, backed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), allows granting citizenship to the millions of migrants who legally or illegally came into India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan before December 2014 — but not if they are Muslims.

Critics say the law will be used in conjunction with a citizenship list that could require all Indians to produce documents proving their origins, a challenge in a country where many people lack official records, including birth certificates.

Muslims fear the new law may be misused to strip them of their citizenship. The ruling BJP, however, argues the law has nothing to do with the country’s Muslims but aims to help those suffering alleged religious persecution in the neighboring countries.

Widespread demonstrations have rocked the Hindu-majority nation since the law was approved by parliament in December.

At least 27 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in clashes with police, which has been accused of using disproportionate force in several states.

The biggest student organization in India’s northeastern state of Assam, where some of the worst violence was seen during widespread protests against the law last month, said it would keep up its opposition.

“Non-violent and democratic protests will continue alongside the legal battle,” said All Assam Students Union Secretary General Lorinjyoti Gogoi.

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