Uniform civil code, anyone?

When Ram, Rahim Poll Cut Outs…

By Poonam I Kaushish

In this season of freebies galore interspersed with vitriolic hate speeches and venomous tu-tu-mein-mein, now Ram-Rahim have been reduced to election cut-outs in Karnataka with each community upping the ante of identity politics to suit narrow political ends and massage their vote-banks.
Following State BJP Government deleting 4% reservation for Muslims in OBC category and redistributed to Vokkaligas and Lingayats, Party President Nadda promised to implement a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) if voted to power. Article 44 states: The State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a UCC throughout India.
It divests religion from social relations and personal laws related to marriage, inheritance, family, land etc, bypasses contentious issue of reform of existing personal laws based on religion — Hindu Marriage Act (1955), Hindu Succession Act (1956) and Muslim Personal Law Application Act (1937). It would ensure all Indians are treated equally, provide gender equality and help improve women’s condition and tribal communities.
Pertinently, the Code has been a key agenda of BJP and part of its 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto alongside Ram temple in Ayodhya and abrogation of Article 370 in J&K which have been fulfilled. The Party believes no country should have any religion-based law other than a single law for citizens. Moreover, UCC provides protection to vulnerable sections and religious minorities, while encouraging nationalistic fervour through unity.
Naturally, the Opposition opposes this on the fallacious ground UCC would interfere in religious groups personal laws and right of religious freedom unless religious groups are prepared for change (sic). It is a ‘minority versus majority’ issue and Hindutva Brigade’s policy for Muslims living in India. It would disintegrate the country and hurt its diverse culture, they warn.
Many hoot for UCC as modern society is gradually becoming homogenous whereby traditional barriers of religion, community and caste are slowly dissipating thus supporting national integration. A thought echoed by Supreme Court in various judgments.
Those against it argue it violates Constitutional freedom to practice religion of choice which allows communities to follow their respective personal laws. For example, Article 25 gives every religious group the right to manage its own affairs and Article 29 the right to conserve their distinct culture. Also, the Constituent Assembly’s Fundamental Rights sub-committee deliberately did not include UCC as a Fundamental Right.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board too recently expressed reservations as in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society each group has the Constitutional right to maintain its identity. It would encroach on our right to religious freedom as the Code would lean towards Hindu personal laws.
Further, if codified civil laws and criminal laws like CrPC and IPC don’t follow ‘one nation, one law’, then how can this diktat be applied to diverse personal laws of various communities? Moreover, personal laws are placed in Concurrent List giving Parliament and State Assemblies power to legislate on personal issues. If Constitution framers intended uniformity in personal laws, they would have put them on the Union List, giving Parliament power to legislate on them.
Some are wary UCC will impose a Hinduised code for all communities as it could include provisions regarding personal issues like marriage that are in line with Hindu customs but will legally force other communities to follow the same.
Legal experts are divided on whether a State has the power to bring about UCC. Some assert as issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance and property rights come under the Concurrent List, 52 subjects on which laws can be made by both Centre and States, State Governments have the power to impose it.
Not a few disagree as giving States the power to bring about UCC could pose a number of practical issues. Think. What if Gujarat has UCC and two people who get married there move to Rajasthan? Which law will they follow?
A similar concern is voiced by tribal groups like Rashtriya Adivasi Ekta Parishad, which approached Supreme Court 2016 seeking protection of their customs and religious practices from a potential UCC. In Nagaland’s tribal territories existing customary laws have primacy over federal laws with respect to personal issues like marriage, land ownership, etc.
Besides, being a Directive Principle of State policy it is not enforceable. Notably, Article 47 directs the State to prohibit consumption of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health. But alcohol is sold in most States and different States have different legal ages for drinking alcohol.
Arguably, what is it about the Code that makes politicians other than Hindutva Brigade see red? Why should UCC be viewed as anti-minority? If Hindu personal law can be modernized and a traditional Christian custom struck down as unconstitutional, why should Muslim personal law be treated as sacred? Should the State discriminate by caste and religion?
Alas, over the years deliberate distortions of religion to suit narrow personal-political agendas and vote-banks have vitiated the country, obfuscating a crucial fact: Ambedkar advocated “optional” UCC. He made two observations. One, Muslim Personal Law was not immutable and uniform throughout India.
Regrettably, in today’s politico-social reality Ambedkar’s advice is ignored and dismissed as utopian hypothesis and Article 44 remains a dead letter. Undoubtedly, both Hindus and Muslims have lost sight of their respective religions essentials, instead largely misled by bigots and fundamentalists. Worse, even the educated are speaking language barely distinguishable from that of Hindu-Muslim fundamentalists. Their stock answer to every critique: Religion is in danger.
Complicating matters there are too many religious practices and beliefs governed by personal laws, and unless we as a society are ready to give up everything that we are used to, then there can be a UCC. Think. Marriage, divorce, inheritance are not concepts that can be regulated strictly by uniform laws, because they are all part of a personal lifestyle which is interwoven within religious identity.
Surprisingly, liberal Muslims have chosen to remain silent on UCC. Given many Islamic countries have codified and reformed Muslim Personal Law to check its abuse. Polygamy has been banned in Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran and even Pakistan. Should they not support a voluntary UCC?
Alas, successive Governments have failed to draw a distinction between politics, caste and religion. Forgetting, there is no mysticism in the State’s secular character. It is neither pro or anti God and is expected to treat all religions and people alike ensuring that no one is discriminated against on religious grounds.
Where do we go from here? Time for consensus among people which addresses their misgivings and concerns before the Code can be enacted. Said a senior Minister, “There is need to tackle “delusions” that some have “encouraged” that UCC is against rituals and core practices of any religion. It is a scientific and modern way of achieving goals of gender justice by removing disparate loyalties in laws which have conflicting ideologies.” Goa has a Civil Code given by Portuguese in 1867.
Clearly, one cannot progress riding on past’s wheels. India needs uniform laws and should figure what is satisfactory to all groups. How long will we live at the impulses and fancies of Pandits, Mullahs and Bishops? — INFA