Recently, the Law Commission of India issued a notification asking all the stakeholders to give their opinion about the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) by July 13, 2023. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that there should be a common code of personal law, or family law, for all citizens of the country. This sparked a widespread debate in the country with input from individuals, organizations and political parties on all sides. As of June 29, the Law Commission has received 850,000 responses to its request.
The UCC in India’s constitution
Article 44 of the Constitution of India mandates that the state shall establish a “Uniform Civil Code” (UCC) for its citizens. This is one of the “Directive Principles of State Policy” enshrined as Part IV of the constitution. The constitution expects the government to make efforts to make legislate according to these directive principles, but no time frame is fixed for their implementation. Neither do the courts have the power to implement them or to order the government to do so.
There are many other directive principles of state policy that have not yet been fully complied with, such as Article 48 which provides for the protection of cows. Although many state governments have enacted such laws, no cow protection law has yet been enacted by the central government.
Today, while the debate over the UCC is raging all over the country, we need to understand that it is in accordance with the basic concepts of our constitution. In our country, every citizen is equal before the law. But people having different faiths are governed by different personal laws. The majority Hindu society is governed by Hindu personal law, while minority societies (chiefly Muslims) are governed by their respective personal laws. Many of these codes, governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, etc., have been in use for a long time.
The necessity of personal law reform
For a long time, it has been felt that there is a lack of uniformity in society due to different personal laws governing people of different religious faiths. At the same time, due to some historical factors, some of these personal laws are not in the best interest of various sections of their community, such as women and children. This hinders the welfare of the whole society.
For example, for several centuries, the Indian Muslim community has had a very unequal and exploitative divorce system. According to custom, any Muslim man has the right to divorce his wife by uttering the word ṭalāq (“divorce”) thrice. This could be performed through a letter, over the telephone or even by sending a message on WhatsApp. Muslim women of all age groups are terrified by this system, under which they may have to suddenly move out of the houses of their husbands without warning.
The situation after divorce is even worse; if the husband wishes to re-marry his divorced wife, the only way is nikāḥ halāla (“marriage that is made acceptable”). In this custom, the divorced woman has to marry another man and had to go through the ordeal of consummating and living with her new husband before remarrying her previous husband.
Thanks to the active support of the Central Government and the intervention of the courts, this system has been abolished and this triple ṭalāq has been declared illegal. Men repudiating their wives in this way are liable to prison time.
The tragedy of Muslim women has been reduced significantly without an overhaul of Muslim personal law. In spite of this, women in Muslim society, unlike in Hindu society, have not achieved legal equality with men. According to Hindu personal law, women have equal rights in inheritance, but this is not the case for Muslim women. Similarly, Muslim women do not have the same rights as Muslim men do to initiate divorce or to contract marriage.
With the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code, the rights and status of these women will improve significantly. It is worth noting that gender equality is a major goal set forth by global organizations, including the United Nations. If the Uniform Civil Code is implemented, it will be a major step forward in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Due to the inconsistency of personal laws, there is discrimination between people of different religious faiths. For example, Muslim men are allowed to practice polygamy (up to four marriages), which is not the case for Hindu men. After the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code, no one will have the right to engage in a practice that for others is rightly considered illegal and reprehensible.
Though we claim that ours is a secular country, real secularism cannot be achieved until we adopt the UCC. When we do so, we will eliminate discrimination between people of different religious faiths and this will pave the way for secularism in the true sense.
By ending unequal personal law, UCC will also help in reducing disputes between sects. At present, there are innumerable legal disputes between the members of different sects due to different personal laws. With the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code, steps can be taken towards a more peaceful and integrated society.
The challenges are very many
The Uniform Civil Code should have been implemented immediately after independence in accordance with the basic spirit of our republic. But those sitting in the corridors of power, fearing that radical-minded people of some sects may not comply, avoided the issue. This is the reason why fundamentalists became emboldened. Leaders feared that, if the UCC were implemented, law and order in the country would be endangered.
But the country has seen that when triple ṭalāq was abolished, it got full support from right-thinking people. Despite the opposition of some fundamentalists, the intelligentsia and society at large applauded the move.
We have failed in such moments before. When, in Mohd. Ahmad Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, the Supreme Court decided in favor of giving alimony to Muslim women, the government balked. Under the leadership of Shri Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian National Congress administration overturned that decision by legislation, thus curtailing the rights of Muslim women. In this way, the unequal treatment continued.
Various political parties will also work to foster their own political agenda. Because of the temptation to appease the Muslim minority, they will try their best to create obstacles in the way of implementing the UCC, without any logic. Although Prime Minister Modi is lobbying strongly in favor of the UCC, in the coming days, when the Indian Parliament sits to pass the Uniform Civil Code Act, not only the government, but the whole of society will have to show firmness. We have to understand that the UCC is not just an ordinary law, but a big leap forward for real social and gender equality, secularism, and justice for women in this country.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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