Country needs a uniform civil code – Manoj Karki

Indian Constitution

The struggle for a society where every citizen abides by a single law irrespective of their religion, caste or any other aspect of their identity continues to be a main agenda. – Manoj Karki

Article 44 (Part IV) of the Constitution states: “The State shall endeavour to secure the citizen a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India”. Although Article 44 comes under the Directive Principles of State Policy, they are fundamental to the governance of India to establish an equal and democratic society. The question of the requirement and suitability of the Uniform Civil Code has been in the public domain for a very long time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has consistently been an advocate of the Uniform Civil Code as a measure of fulfilling the ideals of the Constitution. However, the inception of this debate goes back to the colonial era when the Lex Loci Report of October 1840 stressed on the necessity of uniformity in criminal laws.

Accordingly, laws related to crimes, evidence and contracts were to be codified while personal laws of Hindus and Muslims pertaining to marriage, inheritance, and maintenance were kept distinct from each other. The Queen’s Proclamation in 1858 further sealed this distinction as a measure of “non-interference in religious matters”. What remained underlined in this stance was an inherent politics of divide-and-rule that fuelled the British presence and authority over Indian subjects.

Babasahab Ambedkar while drafting the Constitution was sceptical of the distinction maintained by the personal laws, especially with regards to the implications it could have for women and religious minorities. Indeed, he stated that although the Uniform Civil Code was suggested as a part of the Directive Principles, it was incorporated in the Constitution with the intention that it would be fulfilled when the nation would be ready to accept it. I believe the time has finally arrived.

Moreover, to put the arguments of political viabilities at rest, it has always been understood that the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code could never be done without keeping the interests of all the groups at stake into consideration. This is also in line with the Sangh’s concern of overarching consent from various communities regarding the passing of the Code. Significantly, implementing the Uniform Civil Code can actually boost gender justice and women empowerment specifically in minority religious communities. The Hindu Code Bills and Hindu Succession Act (1956, 2005) can be cited at this point as major examples of positive developments whereby a uniform system of inheritance challenged the gender discriminatory practices in the Hindu personal laws. But the question that remains is, did the changes brought about by Hindu Code Bill necessarily have to stay limited to the Hindus only? In 1951, Syama Prasad Mookerjee had vehemently pointed out the dangers of such a measure in the secular framework of Indian democracy whereby codification of only one religion’s personal laws was nothing short of problematic.

Moreover, the dangers become even more apparent when the personal laws, so blatantly protected for appeasement politics, are largely archaic and unconstitutional. What good has personal laws done to women such as Shah Bano, who only demanded what was rightfully hers after divorce, or Shayara Bano, who found herself in a state of destitution after her husband pronounced instant divorce? These two names are merely the surface representation of many unnamed and helpless minority women who find no legal outlet to claim justice while belonging to a nation that promises right to equality and freedom regardless of gender. Indeed, as BJP leader and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had contended, many Islamic nations around the world have also amended their personal laws with time. Yet, India has not found the political space to reason with the minority groups to codify Muslim or Christian Personal laws for the larger well-being of the nation.

Just like Muslim women, Christians under the Canon Law remain isolated in expecting justice as rules of marriage, divorce and annulment for Roman Catholics continue to be determined by the Church rather than be a legal measure. Here, the significant question of individual rights vis-a-vis community membership looms large. Years of fearful political decisions by the Congress and their Leftist intellectual counterparts, centred around appeasement rather than larger national-progress, has led to a lag that we are still trying to recover from. And the only answer to this dilemma is a uniformity of personal laws that does not discriminate against an individual’s rights to freedom over and above the need to protect community-based politics.

A major indicator of the potential that uniformity in civil codes can render was delivered in 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Indian democracy to a historic victory by passing the Triple Talaq Bill or the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019. The Act freed Muslim women from the age-old religious dictums that rendered them invisible and powerless in terms of their husbands’ ability to divorce them simply at the triple pronouncement of the word ‘talaq’.

The main highlight of the Uniform Civil Code that should not be missed regarding its political suitability is its nationalist fervour. What we now have as a plethora of isolated and segregated laws would be simplified in the form of a uniform and equal legal measure. Irrespective of one’s religious faith or identity, every individual would be placed under the common banner of simply being an Indian citizen. And, as India is making a mark in the world as one of the fastest-growing nations, it is imperative to free ourselves from the age-old archaic values that guide personal laws. Uniformity in codified laws will help integrate the nation beyond all boundaries of identities and help in achieving the real ideal of a democratic society. Furthermore, uniformity of the personal laws will result in a more coherent legal system facilitating efficient administration.

The BJP has always been dedicated to furthering the interests of establishing a unified nation. The belief in the possibility of One Nation-One Code has been further strengthened by the powerful leadership of PM Modi, who has already achieved various milestones in taking India to greater heights. What began as a brave party stance under the leadership of Vajpayee in 1998, when it was first made part of BJPs manifesto, has evolved into a practical possibility under the relentless efforts of the BJP. However, the idea of Uniform Civil Code that we have now is an outcome of political observations and visualisations of eminent leaders like L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley.

As Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated in the 2019 election manifesto, BJP is dedicated to the cause of equality and justice and it believes that there cannot be gender equality till India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon traditions and harmonising them with the requirements of the modern times. Over the years, the BJP has proven its dedication to the cause with Private Member Bills on Uniform Civil Code being presented in both houses of Parliament amid severe opposition and criticism. Nevertheless, the struggle for a society where every citizen abides by a single law irrespective of their religion, caste or any other aspect of their identity continues to be the main agenda. Goa has already demonstrated its success in implementing the progressive measures of Uniform Civil Code. Uttarakhand now seeks to take the baton forward, leading the nation towards a future of social harmony. – The Print, 1 June 2022

 Manoj Karki is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

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