Unveiling the scope of Uniform Civil Code in India - a Political Stunt or a Pathway to Equality

Unveiling the scope of Uniform Civil Code in India - a Political Stunt or a Pathway to Equality

India, known for its diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic mosaic, has long grappled with the challenge of personal laws that vary based on an individual's religion or faith. The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has been a subject of heated debate for decades, aiming to provide a common set of laws governing personal matters for all citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. It gained limelight again after the Prime Minister proposed the idea on 27th June. This article explores the current status of UCC, and its scope in India, analysing its potential to foster social cohesion, gender equality, and harmonisation while respecting individual freedoms.

The Current Debate

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched for UCC during a rally in Bhopal to flag off five Vande Bharat Express trains from Rani Kamlapati station (earlier known as Habibganj station). His endorsement of UCC is in line with a Law ministry affidavit filed in the Supreme Court a few months back saying that "Citizens belonging to different religions and denominations following different property and matrimonial laws is an affront to the Nations Unity." A week back the 22nd Law Commission invited the views of the public and “recognised '' religious organisations on the application of UCC within a month.  Aam Aadmi Party supported the proposal in principle citing Article 44 of the constitution which is a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Congress has opposed the idea vehemently calling it a "tactic by an agenda-driven majoritarian government" to hide its shortcomings from the people. Congress MP P Chidambaram accused BJP of employing the UCC to polarise people and garner support for the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections. Shiromani Akali Dal, DMK, NCP and IUML criticised the PM on the grounds of UCC being a political strategy to gather vote banks after BJP's defeat in Karnataka and the possibility of UCC creating friction in the society. AIADMK withheld its response and NCP opined that the decision should not be made in a hurry. The Supreme Court has expressed its support for UCC several times and most clearly after ruling in favour of the Shah Bano case of 1985 (under the maintenance of wives, children and parents provision section 125 of the All India Criminal Code which applied to all citizens irrespective religion.)

What is Uniform Civil Code?

The Uniform Civil Code refers to a set of codified laws that would apply uniformly to all citizens of India, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Currently, personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption are governed by separate religious laws for different communities, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others. The UCC intends to replace these religious-based laws with a comprehensive and secular legal framework. One of the primary objectives of the UCC is to promote social cohesion and national integration. India's diversity is a valuable asset, but it is essential to strike a balance that respects the individual rights of citizens while also fostering a sense of unity and common identity. Implementing a Uniform Civil Code can help bridge the divide caused by disparate personal laws, bringing citizens from different religious backgrounds under a single legal umbrella. Another crucial aspect of the UCC is its potential to promote gender equality and women's rights. The existing personal laws often contain discriminatory provisions that adversely affect women, particularly in matters such as divorce, maintenance, and inheritance. A uniform and secular civil code can ensure equal rights and protections for women across all communities, empowering them to exercise their rights and access justice on an equal footing. As of now, Hindus are governed by the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 (which grants equal division of assets to children of the property holder be it women or men.) Muslims follow the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 which sanctions practices like unilateral divorce by husband, polygamy by men and sons getting twice the share of property as daughters. Christians and Parsis follow the Indian Succession Act of 1925 which has its complexities. All these laws at times conflict with each other and other articles of constitution like the Shah Bano Case especially when individuals from different religious backgrounds are involved. UCC has the potential to simplify legal processes and harmonise conflicting laws by streamlining legal procedures, reducing the burden on the judiciary and ensuring a more efficient and equitable legal system.

Challenges and Way Forward

One of the main criticisms against a UCC is that it may pose a threat to religious and cultural practices. Opponents argue that it may infringe upon the rights of religious minorities and undermine their traditions and customs. Religious organisations and conservative groups may resist the implementation of a UCC, considering it an encroachment on their religious autonomy and personal laws. This opposition can make the process of enacting a UCC challenging and politically sensitive. India is a diverse country with various religious, cultural, and ethnic communities. Critics argue that imposing a uniform legal framework may overlook the significance of diversity and plurality, and fail to accommodate the specific needs and practices of different communities. These problems must be managed carefully so that the rational interests of all groups are preserved without compromising on the core values of the Constitution. India's UCC must also be different from European countries due to the vast cultural variations and one that solves the distinctive issues of the region. Tunisia's Code of Personal Status, enacted in 1956, is often regarded as a pioneering example of a UCC in the Arab world. It is unique because it introduced progressive reforms that granted women extensive rights and protections, challenging traditional interpretations of Islamic law. The code brought about significant changes in areas such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, promoting gender equality and women's empowerment. It abolished polygamy, established women's right to initiate divorce, and introduced the concept of equal inheritance rights between men and women. Another option can be implementing a partial UCC first that is applicable only in certain pressing civil matters first to gauge how it goes. This approach will allow a graduation transition while minimising resistance from cultural and religious groups. Implementing a UCC requires careful consideration, comprehensive legislation, and effective enforcement mechanisms. The process involves navigating complex legal, social, and political challenges, and it may take time to achieve a consensus and address the concerns of various stakeholders. When discussing the uniqueness of a UCC, it is important to consider the specific provisions and context of each country's legal system. While several countries have implemented UCCs or similar comprehensive civil codes, it can be challenging to determine which one is the most unique. However, one country that stands out for its distinctive approach to a Uniform Civil Code is Tunisia.

Implementing a UCC requires careful consideration, comprehensive legislation, and effective enforcement mechanisms. The process involves navigating complex legal, social, and political challenges, and it may take time to achieve a consensus and address the concerns of various stakeholders. By creating a secular legal framework that upholds individual rights, the UCC has the potential to foster a more equitable and inclusive society. Policymakers, religious leaders, and citizens must engage in constructive dialogue to shape a UCC that respects diversity while ensuring justice, equality and national integration.