India’s Supreme Court declined calls to suspend the implementation of a new citizenship law today, deciding that a constitutional bench of five judges was needed to hear all the challenges to legislation that critics say discriminates against Muslims.
The court gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government four weeks to respond to 144 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the law which has ignited protests across the country.
The law, which came into effect on January 10 after being passed by parliament in December, lays out a path for citizenship for six religious minorities in neighboring mostly-Muslim countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Critics say that the omission of Muslims is discriminatory, and that basing the right to citizenship on religion violates the secular principles of India’s constitution.
Opposition leaders, Muslim organizations and student groups had petitioned the court to hold off implementation of the law until the challenges to the legislation were settled.
But Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde heading a three-bench panel told a packed courtroom that only a constitutional bench of five judges could rule on the matter and in the meantime gave the government more time to explain its stance.
Critics say the law is discriminatory to Muslims – India’s largest minority – as it makes faith the basis for obtaining citizenship.
But the Hindu nationalist government says the law aims to give persecuted minorities from three neighboring countries the right to apply for citizenship.
The biggest student organization in the northeastern state of Assam, where some of the worst violence was seen last month during widespread protests against the law, said it would keep up its opposition.
The legislation has provoked weeks of protests, with critics calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional as it excludes Muslims from these countries.