Edit & Opinion

Uniform civil code, anyone?

It’s the silly season of Ram-Rahim being reduced to political poll cut outs with each community upping the ante of identity politics to suit narrow political ends and massage their vote-banks with elections to five States early 2022.

 

But it might get washed with the Uniform Civil Code back in news thanks to Allahabad High Court urging the Centre to speed it up as “it’s a necessity and mandatorily required today,” while granting relief to 17 inter-faith couples seeking protection of life, liberty and privacy Friday. Earlier, the Delhi High Court too hoped UCC would not remain a mere hope in July.

 

In 2019 the Supreme Court expressed disappointment over lack of UCC reiterating its October 2015 averment for the need of a common code, “This cannot be accepted, else every religion will say it has a right to decide various issues as a matter of its personal law.” Not a few feel the Court missed an opportunity to decide on the issue in 2017 when it outlawed triple talaq without addressing the core issue: Whether personal law practices should prevail over fundamental rights of life, dignity and non-discrimination?

 

Those hooting for it underscore Article 44: The State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India. Essentially, it refers to a common set of laws governing personal matters: marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance and succession for all citizens irrespective of religion. Currently, different laws regulate these aspects for adherents of different religions and a UCC is meant to do away with these inconsistent personal laws.

 

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.

 

Besides, it does not affect personal laws of a particular community. These laws will only help remove gender biases from personal laws bring gender equality and bind together all individual laws’ to have one set of common laws which will apply to all Indian nationals regardless of community and religion.

 

But it 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. Already, the 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.

 

Arguably, 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?

 

Two years ago a BJP MP introduced a Private Member’s Bill on UCC in Rajya Sabha but it was stalled by Opposition on grounds it could lead to communal tensions at a time when protests were being staged against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It was brought again in 2020 but was not introduced.

 

Goa is the only State which has a uniform civil code regardless of religion, gender, caste. It has a common family law whereby all Hindus, Muslims and Christians are bound with the same law related to marriage, divorce, succession. When Goa became a Union Territory in 1961, Parliament authorized the Portuguese civil code of 1867 be amended and repealed by the competent legislature.

 

Surprisingly, activists and liberal Muslims have chosen to remain silent on the subject. Are they not aware 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.

 

Where do we go from here? It all depends on whether the Government is willing to get rid of its excess baggage of isms. Either way, it is time we outline our ideals and disagreements, in the pursuit of a dream UCC. In the last seven decades there has been no sincere effort to even start such a dialogue.

 

People must understand that religion and laws are two different concepts. For example, religious scriptures prescribe punishments for crimes but the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is the only penal laws which are followed. High time people start viewing religion and law as two different concepts and focus on the empowerment of all class of people.

 

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.

 

Plainly, no community is likely to bell the cat by making gratuitous concessions. It is for the State, which is charged with the duty of securing a UCC and has legislative competence to do so. The Government can now fire the gun from its shoulder. 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. Ultimately, no community should be allowed to veto or block progressive legislation.  Especially, if it is voluntary and does not seek to impose any view or way of life on any one arbitrarily.

 

One cannot progress riding on past’s wheels. India needs uniform laws and should figure what is   satisfactory to all groups. Criminal and commercial laws are basic, so there is little purpose behind common laws to appear as something else. It just partitions Indians on the premise of religion that should not happen in the 21st century. It is beyond endurance of sensitive minds to allow injustice to be suffered when it is so palpable. How long will we live at the impulses and fancies of Pandits, Mullahs and Bishops?

 

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Poonam I Kaushish

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