Tiptoeing stealthily

Uniform Civil Code

By Poonam I Kaushish

It’s back to business as usual as BJP-led NDA Sarkar begins 3.0, and, yes, Modi continues to have his way and say. Numero uno seems to be fulfilling the last of its ‘core agenda’: Implementing the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) after it fulfilled repeal of Article 370 in J&K and construction of a ‘magnificent’ temple in Ayodhya. Primarily as the Prime Minister believes no country should have any religion-based law other than a single law for citizens.

This was made plain by Union Law Minister Meghwal Sunday, who expressed hope, contending that some States have started to bring it into force. “In BJP manifesto, we have mentioned UCC and States like Goa and Uttarakhand have started implementing it.” Alongside allies like JD(U) and TDP seem to be kosher with it but feel any move must come through consensus.

Naturally, Opposition has attacked this as symptomatic of Modi’s disregard for India’s diversity saying “good governance and not uniformity should be the objective of a democracy Modi is tiptoeing stealthily to present us with a fait accompli. He should realize UCC would interfere with the right of religious freedom and in personal laws of religious groups unless religious groups are prepared for change, (sic). It is a ‘minority vs majority’ issue and the Hindutva Brigade’s policy for Muslims living in India.”

Besides, 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.

Some are wary UCC will impose a Hinduised code for all communities as it could include provisions regarding personal issues like marriage, divorce, child custody, property rights that are in line with Hindu customs but will legally force other communities to follow the same.

Those hooting for UCC underscore it divests religion from social relations and personal law like Hindu Code Bill, Shariat law etc which are based on scriptures and customs of various religious communities. Replacing it with a common law governing personal matters: marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance and succession for citizens irrespective of religion, harmonising diverse cultural groups, removing inequalities and protecting women rights thereby creating a gender-equal society.

Moreover with modern Indian society gradually becoming homogenous, traditional barriers of religion, community and caste are slowly dissipating whereby UCC provides protection to vulnerable sections and religious minorities, while encouraging nationalistic fervour through unity. Also, the need for it arises due to existence of discriminatory practices and is considered crucial to achieving social reform, eliminating inequities, and upholding fundamental rights. A thought echoed by Supreme Court in various judgments. Indeed,

But this is easier said than done due to the country’s diversity and religious laws, which not only differ sect-wise, but also by community, caste and region. Muslim organizations like All India Muslim Personal Law Board has expressed reservations, stating India has a multi-cultural and multi-religious society and each group has the Constitutional right to maintain its identity. Adding, the UCC is a threat to India’s diversity and encroachment on their rights to religious freedom which will disregard their traditions, imposing rules influenced by the majority religious community.

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.

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?

Besides, being a Directive Principle of State policy UCC is not enforceable. An example, 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.

Questionably, what is it about the UCC that makes the political tribe other than the Hindutva Brigade see red? Why should a Code be viewed as encroaching on the right of religious freedom? Or being 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 being sacred to the secular cause?

Bluntly, UCC spells out that there is no necessary connection between religious and personal law in a civilized society. Moreover with the dynamic ever-changing geo-security situation there is need for strengthening the country’s unity and integrity along-with rejection of different laws for different communities and reforming India.

Certainly the path to UCC is sensitive and difficult but it must be taken. A beginning has to be made if the Constitution is to have any meaning. Discrimination cannot be justified on the grounds of traditions and customs. To establish equality the law that regulates population of a country should also be one.

A common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing desperate loyalties to laws, which have conflicting ideologies. A way forward is to follow Balasaheb Ambedkar who advocated “optional” common civil code. Whereby, Parliament in the initial stage makes a provision of the Code being purely voluntary.

Regrettably, in today’s politico-social reality Ambedkar’s sound advice is ignored and dismissed as a utopian hypothesis and Article 44 has remained a dead letter. As things stand both Hindus and Muslims have lost sight of the essentials of their respective religions and are largely misled by bigots and fundamentalists. Worse, even the educated are speaking the language barely distinguishable from that of Hindu-Muslim fundamentalists. Their stock answer to every critique: Religion is in danger.

Where do we go from here? Time for consensus among people which addresses their misgivings and concerns before the Code is 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. Ultimately, no community should be allowed to veto or block progressive legislation. It just partitions Indians on the premise of religion that should not happen in the 21st century

Time now to reject different laws for different communities, implement Article 44 and reform India. How long will we live at the impulses and fancies of Pandits, Mullahs and Bishops? — INFA