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Secularism, Politics and the Law: The Uniform Civil Code in India

In India, the proposal for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) aims to standardize personal laws across religious, gender, and sexual orientation lines. Enshrined in Article 44 of the Indian Constitution, the UCC represents a constitutional mandate for the state to strive towards uniformity in civil laws throughout the nation. Personal laws related to inheritance and divorce are predominantly governed by religious customs, creating a diverse legal landscape for different religious denominations. This article delves into the complexities of the UCC, exploring arguments for its implementation, potential challenges, and broader implications for India's diverse societal fabric.


Religious Personal Laws and Cultural Diversity

India is a hotspot for ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. Due to historical and cultural diversity, India follows various personal laws. These diverse laws are designed to acknowledge and respect the variations in culture, tradition, and customs among different religious groups. The major religious denominations, namely Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, each adhere to their distinct set of laws to recognise their differences in culture and tradition

For instance, within the Hindu community, inheritance is regulated by the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, ensuring equal property rights for both Hindu women and men. Notably, this Hindu personal law extends its application to Sikhs and Jains.


Contrastingly, Muslims in India are governed by Islamic Sharia Law, as mandated by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937. Per Islamic principles, this legislation addresses various aspects of personal law, including inheritance and marriage. Similarly, the Christian community follows the Indian Succession Act of 1925, wherein predetermined property shares are allocated to Christian women in the presence of relatives. This personal law also extends to Zoroastrians (Parsis) and the Jewish community, underscoring the intricate legal tapestry woven across India's religious spectrum.


These diverse laws are designed to acknowledge and respect the variations in culture, tradition, and customs among different religious groups. Each community upholds its ideals, and it is apparent that they prefer personal matters, such as marriage and succession, to align with customs ingrained in their traditions for centuries. The country's secular nature accommodates different religious beliefs. These distinct personal laws aim to respect and preserve cultural and religious practices, contributing to the nation's rich tapestry of pluralism. 


Secularism and the Uniform Civil Code

The introduction of UCC aligns with India's commitment to being a secular state. The principle of secularism implies that all citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of their religious affiliations. By amending laws to be inclusive of all Indian citizens, the UCC aims to uphold the constitutional ideal of secularism, fostering religious acceptance and acknowledging the diverse religious groups within the country. It reflects an effort to create an impartial legal framework that respects the pluralistic fabric of Indian society.


Proponents of the UCC also say that it is a huge step towards gender equality in India by providing women with equal footing on contentious issues such as divorce or marriage. A UCC can be instrumental in promoting gender equality in India by standardizing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption laws across all religions and communities. This uniformity eliminates discriminatory practices embedded in personal laws, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women regardless of their religious or cultural background. By establishing consistent legal frameworks, many proponents of the UCC believe it can empower women to assert their rights and challenge traditional patriarchal norms that often disadvantage them in matters of marriage, divorce, and property rights. 


Another point that many proponents say is that the UCC will help strengthen national unity and foster a national identity. It can contribute significantly to national unity by promoting a shared set of laws and values that transcend religious and cultural divisions. By unifying diverse personal laws into a single legal framework, a UCC could emphasize the commonality among citizens, reinforcing the idea of a cohesive national identity. Furthermore, a UCC can streamline legal processes and facilitate interactions among citizens across regions and communities, enhancing administrative efficiency and reinforcing the notion of a unified nation. 


Challenges and Debates

There are also a variety of arguments against the UCC. For example, many critics state that it could infringe on religious freedom. The cultural fabric of India is heavily based on religious customs. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution states that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality, and health’. It means that people have power over their religious affairs. A UCC could force citizens to follow customs that do not align with their own, thus violating the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution.


Many codified civil and criminal laws do not follow the principles of a UCC (the entire nation under one law), so it would be difficult to assume that the same can be applied to personal laws. For example, the legal drinking age varies by state. It is 25 in Punjab but only 18 in Goa. Moreover, the Constituent Assembly made personal laws a competency of both State Assemblies and the Parliament. The UCC is also a directive principle of state policy and is not enforceable. If they wanted a unified code, it would be fair to assume that they would put personal laws solely under the Union and would have framed it as a part of the constitution necessary to enforce. 


The UCC debate extends beyond religious concerns to include implications for tribal communities in India. In 2016, the Rashtriya Adivasi Ekta Parishad approached the Supreme Court seeking safeguards for their customs against the potential impact of a UCC. Tribal communities often have distinct customs governing personal laws, which may face challenges and adverse effects under a uniform legal framework.


Detractors of the UCC implementation in India also highlight the intricate political dynamics surrounding the issue. Given the sensitivity of religious identity in the country, historical instances suggest that it has been exploited for political gains, including during colonial rule. Critics argue that introducing the UCC in the current Indian political landscape may risk overshadowing rational discourse, potentially fueling further political contention and polarization.


The Road Ahead: Implementation and Reflection

As India traverses the intricate terrain of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) debate, the recent introduction of a UCC in Uttarakhand has captured widespread attention. The state is gearing up to unveil its version in the second week of February 2024, marking a significant step towards uniformity in civil laws. The committee tasked with drafting the UCC presented its proposal to the state government on 2 February 2024, signaling the commencement of a transformative legislative process.


The introduction of a UCC in Uttarakhand has garnered significant attention, with the state gearing up to unveil its version in the second week of February 2024. The committee responsible for drafting the UCC presented its proposal to the state government on February 2, 2024. 


Once implemented, Uttarakhand's UCC is poised to serve as a model for other states, guiding them in formulating and adopting their comprehensive civil codes. This pioneering initiative has the potential to set a precedent for harmonizing personal laws across diverse religious and cultural landscapes, fostering a more cohesive and inclusive legal framework nationwide.


The UCC will constantly be a contentious issue within the country. Still, it is essential to see how it is implemented, with the specific parts of personal law it addresses. It is crucial to recognise that the various ethnic, religious, and tribal groups in India lay the foundation for the Union of all the states. The proposed UCC, when implemented, must consider the pluralist tradition of India. 

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Tags: #politics #bjp #muslim #union #hindu #secular #ucc


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