‘‘I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field.’’- Dr. B R Ambedkar
This month we shall be celebrating our 72nd Republic Day but despite more than 70 years of enactment of our constitution, there are some provisions that are still debatable and are yet to be implemented and, Article 44 that deals with the Uniform Civil Code is one of them. Uniform Civil Code stands for a provision that every section of the society irrespective of their religion shall be treated equally according to a national civil code, which shall apply to all uniformly. It includes subjects like marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance, adoption, and succession of the property. As per Article 44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy, the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India. Therefore, the Uniform civil code is a proposal to replace the personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community in India with a common set of governing laws for every citizen.
India is a country where hundreds of thousands of different religions, cultures, and traditions exist, and it is not easy to manage such a diverse country. The Britishers faced the same problem when they came across the diversity of Indian society, where every community had its own set of rules. That's where Uniform Civil Code comes into the picture. The concept of UCC is not new but originates back from the colonial period. In 1840, the Lexi Loci Report was submitted to the British government which emphasized the need for codification of Indian laws however, it also recommended that personal laws of Hindus and Muslims should be kept outside the realm of codification. But an increase in provisions related to personal laws in the later British rule compelled the government to codify the Hindu laws. In 1941 B N Rau Committee was formed to do the needed. And based on its recommendations Hindu Succession Act 1956 was passed. This act codified laws regarding succession among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs but Muslims, Christians, and Parsis still had their personal laws.
From time-to-time courts have shown their concern over the need for UCC in its judgments. The judgments in the Shah Bano case (1985) and Sarla Mudgal Case (1995) are well known. Every day there are cases where personal laws conflict with existing laws and it becomes tough to make a decision. Our constitution has given the right to equality to every citizen but when it comes to practices like polygamy and triple talaq it adversely impacts a woman's right to a life of dignity. Is it okay to give constitutional protection to practices that are not even in conformity with our fundamental rights?
UCC is not against secularism, it will not limit people’s freedom to follow their religion, but it is a provision that will strengthen us as a democracy. Uniform Civil Code implies that every citizen of the country shall be governed by the same set of laws irrespective of their religion. It means that all Indians are treated the same in all the civil proceedings. When we allow personal laws with thousands of years old values to operate, we don’t only create an alternate judicial institution but also allow violation of human rights in the name of religion.
India is one of the most heterogeneous countries in the world and a common code will help us to integrate more than we have ever been since independence. No matter what your caste, religion, or tribe is every citizen will be governed under one national civil code of conduct. UCC will develop a more coherent system of laws by unifying and codifying diverse personal laws. This will help reduce the confusion and make the judicial administration more efficient. Adopting UCC will free us from the chains of religious and caste politics and, will help the nation to move forward in the direction of social development.
But the journey towards a common code is not going to be as easy as it seems. It is so difficult to formulate a set of rules that would be applicable to all communities uniformly. UCC will affect the vast range of interests and sentiments and that’s the reason why we lack the political will to implement such a law. Some parties also take advantage of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue which leads to politicization. Also, misinterpretation of UCC has made minorities apprehensive of any such law because they believe that majority views are being promoted and imposed on them.
The opposition also argues that any provision like UCC may lead to grudges and tension between different communities as they believe their personal laws are derived from religious beliefs, therefore enacting UCC is not a viable solution. Secularism is a part of the basic structure of our constitution and a uniform civil code hampers people’s right to follow their own religion, culture, and customs. Also, even if we are talking about gender equality then the enactment of laws like the Hindu Inheritance Act in favour of women have neither brought any change in their status nor in the property held by them.
However, most Indians irrespective of their religion still believe that Uniform Civil Code will help us to strengthen and consolidate Indian nationhood. Political leaders should take the responsibility to develop a consensus on this issue instead of using it to gain political advantage. A common code is not just about national unity but is about treating a person with the dignity that he deserves what personal laws have failed to do so far. The codification of all personal laws will ensure that prejudices and stereotypes in personal laws come to light and can be tested on the anvil of fundamental rights of the Constitution. Uniform Civil Code not only helps in accommodating the diverse population but also ensures justice. Some intellectuals suggest that instead of introducing UCC as a new law we should introduce it as a blend of personal laws but here we should be concerned about the scope of arbitrariness as we saw in the Special Marriage Act of 1954.
People need to understand the difference between the concept of laws and religion. Our constitution has given us the right to follow any religion and UCC has nothing to do with it, we will enjoy our rights even after its enforcement. A Uniform Civil Code would help us to empower all the sections equally and it doesn’t violate the principle of secularism rather it strengthens it.
The government and society need to work hard on building trust, and more importantly, make common causes with social reformers instead of religious conservatives. To make the process easier, we can implement such a law gradually in stages rather than in one single go. The various aspects of UCC like marriage, adoption, succession, etc. can be introduced by the government separately step-by-step to achieve the broader objective.
"The need for common civil code though it is debated at different levels still it remains a mirage for want of agreement among different groups. There are many areas in which religious laws can be reconciled with secular law without there being a conflict of each other. It is possible to have a common code at least for the marriage law in India."- Kochi high court
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