UCC – Easier said than done

Uniform Civil Code has been a topic of great discussion for a long time, especially since the BJP came into power in 2014. In its almost 10-year-long reign, BJP has delivered on most of the promises made in their election manifestos (2014, 2019) – Article 370, triple-Talaq, CAA/NRC, and of course, the Ram Mandir. The implementation of UCC is the last big promise that remains – the final feather in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cap.

Although debates concerning the Uniform Civil Code have been a hot topic in India for a while now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement regarding the law, while addressing booth-level workers in Bhopal last month, further stoked the fire. PM Narendra Modi in his address, discussing UCC, questioned how members of the same family can be governed by separate laws. He further added that the country “cannot run on a dual system”.

This statement from the Prime Minister was enough to cause furore among citizens, with people defensively picking sides.

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BJP ministers and members shared the Prime Ministers’ sentiment, advocating for the UCC, claiming it would eliminate gender bias and empower women.

Tribal organisations from the states of Jharkhand, Meghalaya and Nagaland were quick to speak against the UCC, appealing to the government to exempt them from any form of UCC that could infringe upon their rights to practice their personal laws.

Minorities, who have already compromised on criminal laws, were disapproving of the UCC, which could put into jeopardy their rights to practice their religion freely. For, the UCC threatens to potentially violate Article 25 (1) of the Constitution which grants individuals the freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion, and Article 25 (2) which states that religious groups have the right to manage their own affairs in matters concerning religion.

Contrast in Personal Laws

India is a diverse nation where different regions, communities, and religions have their own sets of personal laws. These personal laws, pertaining to the civil matters of marriage, divorce, succession, and inheritance have been developed over centuries and have for long stood the test of time. Now, under the UCC they are potentially threatened with being modified or being done away with entirely, to give way to a new set of laws that will apply to all citizens, irrespective of their religion.

Marriage, under Catholic law, is considered a sacrament (when ordained by a priest or bishop), which conflicts with the Muslim Personal Law’s recognition of marriage as a contract. Will Christian laws of marriage and divorce take precedence over the MPL or vice versa?

While the Special Marriage Act (1954) states that the legal age for marriage for men and women is 21 and 18 years respectively, Muslim law allows for marriage as soon as either of the gender attains puberty. Under the UCC, this remains subject to change, with the belief that the age mentioned in the Special Marriage Act might be ordained for all.

Hindu Undivided Family (HUF), considered a single entity from a legal standpoint, enjoys a tax exemption of Rs 2.5 lakh. So within the UCC, will this be applied to all citizens irrespective of their religion or will it be abolished altogether?

Under the Goa Civil Code, which is largely based on Portuguese laws, if a Hindu woman is unable to bear a child by the age of 25, or a son by the age of 30, her husband has the right to take a second wife. Outside of Goa, Hindu law does not permit bigamy. But this right to bigamy is not extended to Goan Muslims, who are subjected to the Portuguese and Shastric Hindu laws.

It is still unclear how these laws will be tackled under the UCC.

Can the Hindu Law be fairly codified?

Comparisons with minorities aside, it is important to note that it would be quite taxing to codify the Hindu personal laws alone, which in itself are quite diverse and not without exemptions.

Post-Independence, attempts were made by the Nehru administration to codify and reform Hindu Laws. Thus, in the 1950s Hindu code bills, a set of four laws were passed which aimed to modernise the Hindu society. These laws took into its fold Hindus as well as Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. But they don’t come entirely without exceptions.

The Hindu Marriage Act (1955) purposed with codifying laws related to marriage, which was also applicable to Sikhs (apart from Jains and Buddhists), did not suffice. In 2012, the Anand Marriage (Amendment) Bill was passed, which provided Sikhs with a personal law for marriage. However, divorce is still governed by the HMA.

The Hindu Succession Act (1956) which lays down the law for succession and inheritance, under Article 366 of the Constitution, exempts all Scheduled Tribes from it; ST women are not entitled to an equal share as their male counterparts.

Different states still have their own laws concerning inheritance – while in Maharashtra, a widow’s share is almost equal to that of the son’s and daughter’s, in Andhra Pradesh, a widow’s share is lesser than that of the daughter’s.

In what way are the exemptions going to be dealt with, should the UCC come into being? How the government attempts to reach a consensus is yet to be seen, and can only be gauged when a thorough proposal is put on the table.

Does India need a Uniform Civil Code?

Earlier this month, a 12-man delegation, led by Chief Minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio, met with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, to share their concerns regarding the UCC; citing Article 371(A) of the Constitution, which provides special provisions to the predominantly Christian state of Nagaland, granting it a certain degree of autonomy with respect to religious practices.

K. G. Kenye, a government spokesperson and Nagaland MLA said that Shah had “assured the delegation that the Centre is actively considering for exemption of Christians and some tribal areas from the purview of the 22nd Law Commission’s exercise.”

This is a point worth looking at. When there are already exceptions being made, does it not defeat the whole point of a “uniform” law to govern all? One can argue that it negates the whole purpose of a UCC.
The existence of exceptions only confirms that it will be a huge challenge to weave a uniform “law for all” into the diverse fabric of India without leaving bumps and frayed ends.

The argument for gender bias

BJP has for a long time considered UCC a stepping stone towards the empowerment of women; with the UCC being mentioned in their 1996, 1998, and 2005 manifestos under the section titled “Nari Shakti: Towards Empowerment.”

Most recently, in both their 2014 and 2019 election manifestos we can find the promise for a UCC stating “BJP believes that there cannot be gender equality till such a time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code.”
They believe that a UCC will be integral to the upliftment of women in India. Especially Muslim women who, according to the Muslim Personal Law, are entitled to an unequal share in inheritance, when compared to men. UCC could do away with this, the BJP claims.

However, is a uniform civil code the only solution to resolve gender bias? Maybe that is one route, albeit arduous, but it is by no means the only way.

If gender bias is the only compelling argument to justify the implementation of UCC, then it is to be noted that in the Indian Constitution, Clause 3 of Article 15 vests special powers to the State that allow it to create special provisions for the benefit of women and children. This clause of the constitution can also be activated to bring about modern laws for women that empower them. In doing so, the complexities that come with a UCC could be avoided.

But, is the UCC being shrouded under the guise of gender equality but in reality, has a deeper agenda? It is too early to say exactly what the government’s plans are, as we do not yet have a blueprint of what the UCC would look like.

Equality under the UCC

The government has made no claims concerning equality under UCC, save for introducing equal inheritance for Muslim women. Though the UCC aims to promote gender equality, it does so while endangering communal and religious equality.

Given the BJP’s past track record with minorities, tribals, and SCs, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume, that the UCC may perhaps be less than fair to those communities.

Therefore, it should be taken into account that a “uniform” civil law does not necessarily guarantee equality and could prove to be more equal for some than others.

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