This article talks about the current status of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India and the debates around it. Firstly, one needs to deconstruct the term Uniform Civil Code and understand what it means. The debate around UCC had been alive for more than 60 years now. UCC is a set of codes or a set of rules (generally speaking, a set of laws) that are uniform for all citizens in India irrespective of their caste, religion, gender etc. Indian legal system has two kinds of laws- criminal and civil. Criminal laws deal with laws for committing a crime like murder or theft and so on. Civil laws talk about the matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and family. To have UCC will mean having same civil laws for all the citizens of this country.
Criminal laws are anyways same for everybody; no distinctions are based on religion, gender, ethnicity or anything. A different treatment is given to the matters of civil laws, though. In matters of civil laws, the idea is that traditions of the religions people come from should be respected and this is what creates the issue for debates around UCC. For example, in ancient times, Hindus thought of marriages as sacrosanct and the practice of divorce did not exist at all. This believe has changed with time and divorce is now a practice among Hindus. Similarly, Muslim personal law is derived from the Shariya laws or Shariyat and are very different from Hindu laws. Because of these varied laws followed by communities, there has been an opposition for UCC.
One can recall the famous Shah Bano Case of 1985 in which the supreme court gave a progressive judgment and said that muslim women are entitled to maintenance money just like the hindu women. What happened was that Shah Bano was a 56 years old muslim woman whose husband divorced her. Now in muslims, marriages are thought of as contracts or agreements. And hence, just like in the case of a breach of the agreement, there is a fixed amount to be paid by one party to the another. This amount which the husband pays to the wife is called ‘mehar’. The mehar fixed for Shah Bano was rupees 200. This amount would have been enough for her sustenance for her 40-45 years ago, when she got married, but in 1985, when she got divorced, this amount was not enough at all. And this was the reason for the judgment by the Supreme Court. There was a lot of protest from the ulemas and maulaiwis against this judgment and they considered it against Islam and their traditional practices. During this time Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister and he brought a bill which circumvented the supreme court decision in order to appease the community and uleams. So we can very well see that the debates around UCC are deeply rooted in religion, communities as well as in the politics of appeasement and vote bank.
There is another issue that concerns the UCC and the wider debate around it. There is a discourse in the media that shariya laws oppress women while the modern hindu laws treat women equally and hence people want hindu personal laws in the name of UCC. It is very interesting to see that the Hindu right wing parties demand UCC but at the same time they say that if muslim men have a right to marry more than once, why cant hindu men have this right. It becomes more interesting because, while muslim men can remarry legally, the census data shows that hindu and Buddhist men have more second wives than muslim men. In Islam, the second wife has legal rights of inheritance etc while for hindus and Buddhists, the second wife is a concubine who has no protection and no property or inheritance rights. So the demand for UCC by different sections for people serves different purposes and we have to be very mindful pf what laws become a part of the UCC. This decision can’t be made by politicians and political parties alone and there has to be a wider debate and a wider participation, especially by women from all parts of the country to decide what becomes a part of UCC and what doesn’t.
The constitution if India, in article 44 says that the governments should make an environment conducive for implementing the UCC. There have been many progressive judgments by the supreme court like in the Daniel Latifi case, Shami Mahara case which have invalidated the triple talaq in case of muslims and now there has to be a cooling period and counseling before the divorce is finally granted. In the time being, Islamic laws have also changed, so have Hindu laws and we have to be aware of what these changes have been while thinking about the UCC. The idea of uniformity is crucial to the idea of UCC. All religious practices, caste practices are extremely oppressive of women and whatever be the case, women always are subjugated in many ways. Even in the Nair community which is matrilocal, the property is controlled by men and hence women are suppressed. The idea of religion dictating personal matters gets problematised with the creation of a secular state as codification of religious laws and dictums starts happening. For instance, in the Harmider Singh case, the Delhi high court said that allowing article 21 and 14 (right to life and liberty and right to equality before law) is like allowing a bull in a china shop. That it will disintegrate the family system. We can see that there is no equality present with judgments like this. To make the UCC equal and prejudice free and t make sure that it gets properly implemented, we have to ensure that we listen to the voices of women from all parts of the country, all religions, all castes and sexualities. We know that women can now inherit equal property but a very small number of women actually exercise this right because of their own patriarchal socialization as well as the pressure of society. Inequality is a social issue, how much can laws solve it? But laws definitely are a concrete step in showing the way ahead and mirroring our aspiration as a society.
Some issues that the UCC should definitely discuss and take in consideration are marriage and divorce, to begin with. In India one can get murdered for marrying by choice and can be stigmatized for being a divorcee. Hence marriage and divorce by choice is an issue that UCC should advocate completely. The second issue is inheritance of property. Yes, there is already a law in place about this but we must develop mechanisms to keep checks on people to see if the law is implemented. This law has to be compulsion, rather than a choice. The other issue is regarding the status of unmarried couples, the ones in live-in relationships. Again, there are laws that say that couples in live-in relationships are to be treated as married couples, but the law is hardly implemented. Issues of no tolerance towards any kind of domestic violence should also be addressed by the UCC. Also the UCC should put forth the ideas of making of an ecosystem where respect for tribal believes exists. Tribal beliefs and practices can vary from the mainstream a lot and we have to make sure that our laws don’t become oppressive to them.
In conclusion, one can say that the UCC can become a tool for empowering women and to change the attitudes and stereotypes of people about women. It can help us reduce the number of crimes against women and in some ways, transform the society. But, here, we have to be mindful of the critique of the UCC by Indian feminists like Flavia Agnes and Nivedita Menon who say that UCC is nothing but a version of Hindu personal laws. Ideas of religion cant supersede the ideas of fundamental equality. UCC and its implementation point towards women empowerment and absolute equality and we must remember this.
To hear a chat on this issue, refer to this link: http://goo.gl/FSvwfl
Author: Akshay Palande
Akshay Palande is a passionate teacher helping hundreds of students in their UPSC preparation. With a degree in Mechanical Engineering and double masters in Public Administration and Economics, he has experience of teaching UPSC aspirants for 5 years. His subject of expertise are Geography, Polity, Economics and Environment and Ecology.