India, a country where people from different religious beliefs coexist peacefully since time immemorial, one of the contested pledges maintained by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code across the country. The Constitution of India has dedicatedly listed certain Directive Principles under part IV. Under Article 44 of “The Constitution of India”, the state has been tasked with the realization of the idea of a Uniform Civil Code (समान नागरिक संहिता).
At the time of making of the Constitution, to preserve the unity of the country and the concept of secularism, the Constitution makers thoughtfully placed “Freedom of Religion” and “Right to maintain their religious Institutions” under Fundamental Rights (Article 25-28) and also cast the duty on the states to gradually formulate Uniform Civil Code as directed under Article 44 of Directive Principles of State Policy. Now, the locus of the issue is that different religious communities have been following different traditions concerning marriage, adoption, succession, maintenance, etc. With the advent of the UCC, these religious communities and their religious heads/representatives will lose decision-making power over civil matters and it will be the state that will regulate matters by uniform law for each individual irrespective of his/her religious identity. Personal laws based on the scriptures, customs, and beliefs govern adoption, divorce, inheritance, marriage, and maintenance which are to be replaced with a common set of rules. These personal laws are different from that of public civil laws.
Picture Credit: New Indian Express
In a country so large in its territory and with the second-largest population in the world, secularism can be found in its nooks and corners. However, the other side of the coin of secularism can be seen in the form of some derogatory customs practiced with prejudice to a particular class/gender among certain communities. The former Portuguese colony of Goa and Daman, where the Indian state of Goa was split off from India, due to colonial authority, has to date been practicing a common family law system, known as the Goa Civil Code. Speaking of which Goa is the only Indian state to have a Uniform Civil Code even after liberation of the state by India in 1961.
In various judgments, quite often the notion of a Uniform Civil Code has been voiced by the Supreme Court of India to reprimand the approach of the government and the legislature in carrying out the mandate. With the Shah Bano case in 1985, UCC became a key area of focus in Indian politics. Further twice, in November 2019 and March 2020, UCC was suggested but withdrawn both times without being introduced in the Indian Parliament. The Uniform Civil Code has drawn resistance from numerous opposition parties as well as few of the BJP’s NDA allies, and NGOs. “Uniformity is always beneficial but before the Uniform Civil Code is implemented, there should be large-scale consultations with the public” are the words of Justice Krishna Murari, who recently finished his term, in the Supreme Court of India.
Picture Credit: The Economic Times
“The Sankalp Patra, the party’s manifesto, was released on November 26, 2022, by BJP President J.P. Nadda and Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, which speaks of the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in Gujarat“ Gujarat Assembly polls 2022 | BJP releases manifesto, promises to implement Uniform Civil Code in State., November 26, 2022
The state of Gujarat is one among other BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Assam, where the ruling party has discussed putting the UCC into effect either before the election or in the lead-up to the elections. However, in the race, Uttarakhand was the first to establish a committee to examine the viability of a uniform civil code, followed by the state of Gujarat.
Now, the practicality of the Uniform Civil Code in the implementation part will face challenges owing to the diversity of cultures and their age-old practices. Likewise also objections of the people towards states’ involvement in religious affairs. On the contrary, the positive side of the implementation of UCC advocates for building unity and integrity in the country while at the same time ensuring gender equality by repealing archaic personal laws footed on the patriarchal front. Thus, to truly embody secularism, diverse religious beliefs must come together and culminate in a set of unifying, universal values and goals.