The Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved its judgment on the matter of whether panchayat certificates submitted by applicants trying to enter the rolls of the National Register of Citizens would be accepted as proof of identity.

Earlier this year, the Guwahati High Court had said that residency certificates issued by panchayat secretaries were private documents and had no “statutory sanctity”. This had left 48 lakh applicants, who had submitted such certificates, in the lurch.

The National Register of Citizens is being updated for the first time since 1951 in Assam, an exercise that is meant to root out “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. To be counted as a citizen in Assam, applicants had to provide two sets of documents – first, “legacy data” proving they or their ancestors entered the state before the midnight of March 24, 1971, and second, a “link document” proving their relationship with the said ancestor.

A large number of married women, who have no other papers linking them to their paternal homes, had submitted panchayat certificates as link documents. These usually named the women concerned, mentioned who her parents were and which village she was going to after marriage.

In October, Prateek Hajela, state coordinator for the register, had said that of approximately 48 lakh applicants, 17 lakh were “original inhabitants” who would have no trouble making it to the list. Hajela has since clarified that there will be no such nomenclature in the list that is finally published.

The two-judge Supreme Court bench, comprising Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Fali Nariman, is hearing a clutch of petitions that challenge the Guwahati High Court order and the category of “original inhabitants”. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union and the Assam State Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind are among the petitioners.

The counsel for the petitioners challenged the High Court’s characterisation of panchayat certificates as private documents. According to Section 74 (2) of the Evidence Act, he said, if there were public records kept of private documents, they would be accepted as public documents. He also pointed out that in Assam, registering births was made mandatory only in 1978 and Muslim marriages and divorces in 2010.

The government’s counsel argued that panchayat certificates were only supporting documents. “Even as a supporting document, it cannot stand on its own,” he said. “It has no property value and cannot supplant legacy data. The women who are married and living in another village cannot have a better right than those who are not married.”

Married women, he said, would have to provide links to their native village independently of the certificates. Several Muslim women, who had submitted panchayat documents as part of their application, will be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision on the matter.

The Supreme Court observed that all people in the list should be given an opportunity to prove citizenship. The bench said that next week, it will hear arguments on the classification of original inhabitants and the matter of extending the deadline for publishing a draft list of the National Register of Citizens.