With the new citizenship law and the proposed NRC sparking protests across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said
in December that the government had not held any discussions on a pan-India NRC.
But now, in its first legal response before the Supreme Court on a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), the central government has said that it is a "necessary exercise for any sovereign country”.
Responding to a batch of petitions challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, B C Joshi, Director in the Ministry of Home Affairs, submitted in an affidavit on March 17 "that the preparation of a national register of citizens is a necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from non-citizens”.
The petitions had also challenged Section 14A of the Citizenship Act, 1955, which provides legal backing for the NRC, on the grounds that it suffered from excessive delegation of powers to the executive and is therefore arbitrary.
The provision states that the central government "may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him” and "may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens”.
In its affidavit, the government put on record that its powers to bring in a nationwide NRC have existed in the statute books since 1955.
"It is submitted that as per the existing statutory regime, there are three classes of persons residing in India — Citizens, Illegal migrants and foreigners on valid visas. It is therefore, the responsibility entrusted on the Central Government, on a combined reading of the Foreigners Act, The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the 1955 Act to identify/detect illegal migrants and thereafter, follow the due process of law,” the affidavit said.
The government cited the Foreigners Act, 1946 to claim that it had "absolute and unfettered discretion” to expel foreigners and "an unrestricted right to expel remains”.
"It is submitted that the assertions of the Petitioners that the requirement for registration of citizenship have been delegated to the executive are erroneous as the National Register of Citizens does not create any embargo on any form of citizenship. It is submitted that the delegation has been only of the procedure to be adopted while conducting the said exercise,” the affidavit said.
The government cited examples of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where citizenship cards are issued. "It may not be out of place to mention that as per information available in open sources in many countries, there is a system of maintaining register of their citizens. In fact, national identification cards are issued based upon the exercise of identification of citizens in these countries,” the affidavit said.
Defending the validity of Section 14A of the Citizenship Act, the government said that through the provision, the Parliament gives the government powers to only frame rules on procedure to be followed for maintaining NRC and not to set criterion or requirements of citizenship of Indian nationals.
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