Take up urgent cases, urgently
The Supreme Court (SC) began hearing petitions related to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on Wednesday. The legislation has sparked both a constitutional and political crisis. Many states have decided to not implement the law — this, in turn, has raised questions about the stability of the federal architecture. The Act has also sparked nationwide protests. All of this makes the SC’s deliberations, and final order, among the most significant judicial decisions in recent times.
The court did well in segregating the Assam and Tripura related petitions from the other petitions — both states have a complex history of dealing with immigration. It also did well in indicating that the matter may be eventually heard by a Constitution Bench. But the proceedings also had gaps, particularly with regard to timing. The CAA is arguably the most pressing issue in the country because of the political, constitutional and law and order challenges it has created. The SC should have taken it up earlier. By now giving the Centre four more weeks to respond, it only delays the matter further. The Centre, of course, has a right to present its case but it has had over a month since the SC had listed the matter. Claiming new petitions were filed, which require more time, does seem to suggest stalling.
This delay appears to have become a pattern with the apex court. It took over five months to lay out welcome principles about restrictions on civil liberty in Jammu and Kashmir. It began hearing the constitutional challenge to Article 370 three months after the Parliament pushed through the nullification of the provision. It is still considering the challenge to the electoral bonds scheme, which has now been in operation for three years and generated apprehensions whether it distorts the nature of the electoral and democratic process. Add it all up. While process, slow deliberation, setting up the appropriate benches, and giving all sides an opportunity to present their best arguments is essential, it must not appear that the Court is unwilling to take up cases which require urgent attention. This erodes its credibility. Its word on all these contentious issues is final, but that final word must come sooner rather than later.