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Uniform civil Code is the proposal to replace the personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community in India with a common set governing every citizen. These laws are distinguished from public law and cover marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and maintenance. Article 44 of the Directive Principles in India sets its implementation as duty of the State. Apart from being an important issue regarding secularism in India, it became one of the most controversial topics in contemporary politics during the Shah Bano case in 1985. The debate then focused on the Muslim Personal Law, which is partially based on the Shariyat law and remains unreformed since 1937, permitting unilateral divorce and polygamy in the country.
After the passing of the Hindu Code bill, the personal laws in India had two major areas of application: the common Indian citizens and the Muslim community, whose laws were kept away from any reforms. The frequent conflict between secular and religious authorities over the issue of uniform civil code eventually decreased, until the 1985 Shah Bano case. Bano was a 73-year-old woman who sought maintenance from her husband, Muhammad Ahmad Khan. He had divorced her after 40 years of marriage by triple Talaaq (saying “I divorce thee” three times) and denied her regular maintenance; this sort of unilateral divorce was permitted under the Muslim Personal Law. She was initially granted maintenance by the verdict of a local court in 1980. Khan, a lawyer himself, challenged this decision, taking it to the Supreme court, saying that he had fulfilled all his obligations under Islamic law. The Supreme court ruled in her favour in 1985 under the “maintenance of wives, children and parents” provision (Section 125) of the All India Criminal Code, which applied to all citizens irrespective of religion. It further recommended that a uniform civil code be set up. Besides her case, two other Muslim women had previously received maintenance under the Criminal code in 1979 and 1980.
The Shah Bano case soon became nationwide political issue and a widely-debated controversy. Many conditions, like the Supreme court’s recommendation, made her case have such public and political interest. After the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, minorities in India, with Muslims being the largest, felt threatened with the need to safeguard their culture.The All India Muslim Board defended the application of their laws and supported the Muslim conservatives who accused the government of promoting Hindu dominance over every Indian citizen at the expense of minorities. The Criminal Code was seen as a threat to the Muslim Personal Law, which they considered their cultural identity. According to them, the judiciary recommending a uniform civil code was evidence that Hindu values would be imposed over every Indian.
The orthodox Muslims felt that their communal identity was at stake if their personal laws were governed by the judiciary. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government, which previously had their support, lost the local elections in December 1985 because of its endorsement of the Supreme Court’s decision. The members of the Muslim board, including Khan, started a campaign for complete autonomy in their personal laws. It soon reached a national level, by consulting legislators, ministers and journalists. The press played a considerable role in sensationalising this incident.
An independent Muslim parliament member proposed a bill to protect their personal law in the parliament. The Congress reversed its previous position and supported this bill while the Hindu right, the Left, Muslim liberals and women’s organisations strongly opposed it. The Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) was passed in 1986, which made Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code inapplicable to Muslim women. The debate now centred on the divinity of their personal law. A Muslim member of parliament made a claim emphasising the importance of the cultural community over national by saying that only a Muslim judge could intercede in such cases. Bano later in a statement said that she rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict. It also led to the argument defining a woman’s right according to her specific community with political leader Jaffar Sharief saying, “today, in the Shah Bano’s case, I am finding that many people are more sympathetic towards Muslim women that their own women. This is very strange.”
The politicisation led to argument having two major sides: the Congress and Muslim conservatives versus the Hindu right-wing and the Left. In 1987, the Minister of Social Welfare, Rajendra Kumari Bajpai, reported that no women were given maintenance by the Wakf Board in 1986. Women activists highlighted their legal status and according to them, “main problem is that there [are] many laws but women are dominated not by secular laws, not by uniform civil laws, but by religious laws.” The legal reversal of introducing the Muslim Women law significantly hampered the nationwide women’s movement in the 1980s.
Personal laws were first framed during the British Raj, mainly for Hindu and Muslim citizens. The British feared opposition from community leaders and refrained from further interfering within this domestic sphere. The demand for a uniform civil code was first put forward by women activists in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the objective of women’s rights, equality and secularism. Till Independence in 1947, a few law reforms were passed to improve the condition of women, especially Hindu widows. In 1956, the Indian Parliament passed Hindu Code Bill amidst significant opposition. Though a demand for a uniform civil code was made by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his supporters and women activists, they had to finally accept the compromise of it being added to the Directive Principles because of heavy opposition.
The need for UCC
The proponents of a uniform civil code have been campaigning for it even before the independence of India. India has always been a place of many colors and spices and before independence in 1947 it would have been hard to point out what constituted India.
Fighting the British rule and winning our independence also helped in creating this nation we call India. It was known even at that time that to further unite India and make it a truly secular nation we would need a uniform civil code. But even after 66 years of independence we haven’t been able to do this.
The reasons for why this has not been done are complex and a different topic on its own but it all boils down to political will. Politicians have always found it beneficial to play vote bank politics and try to appease different castes and groups instead of attempting to integrate our nation. Instead of focusing on the negative let’s focus on the positive and talk about the reasons why we do need a uniform civil code.
1.Promotion of Secularism
A uniform civil code means that all citizens of India have to follow the same laws whether they are Hindus or Muslims or Christians or Sikhs. This sounds fair and secular to me. A uniform civil code doesn’t mean it will limit the freedom of people to follow their religion, it just means that every person will be treated the same. That’s real secularism.
2.All Indians Should be Treated Same
We have personal laws based on particular religions, which means that while Muslims can marry multiple times in India, a Hindu or a Christian will be prosecuted for doing the same. This doesn’t seem like equality to me. All the laws related to marriage, inheritance, family, land etc. should be equal for all Indians. This is the only way to ensure that all Indians are treated same.
3.It will Give More Rights to the Women
A uniform civil code will also help in improving the condition of women in India. Our society is extremely patriarchal and misogynistic and by allowing old religious rules to continue to govern the family life we are condemning all Indian women to subjugation and mistreatment. A uniform civil code will help in changing these age old traditions that have no place in today’s society where we do understand that women should be treated fairly and given equal rights.
4.It Will Integrate India
A uniform civil code will help in integrating India more than it has ever been since independence. A lot of the animosity is caused by preferential treatment by the law of certain religious communities and this can be avoided by a uniform civil code. It will help in bringing every Indian, despite his caste, religion or tribe, under one national civil code of conduct.
The various personal laws are basically a loop hole to be exploited by those who have the power. Our panchayats continue to give judgments that are against our constitution and we don’t do anything about it. Human rights are violated through honor killings and female foeticide throughout our country. By allowing personal laws we have constituted an alternate judicial system that still operates on thousands of years old values. A uniform civil code would change that.
The enactment of a UCC at once might disrupt communal harmony. The better course would be to bring about small reforms, correcting some inherent irrationality in some of the personal laws, and make them suitable for modern times. The focus should also be on removing disparities between different religions. This might lay the foundation of implementing a UCC at a later date.
Goa has a Common Family Law, which is also called Goa Civil Code. It is a set of civil laws that governs all Goans, irrespective of religion. Although it has some exceptions for some communities and is quite different from a Uniform Civil Code, it shows that the enactment of a UCC is indeed feasible in India.