The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) as per Article 44 of the Indian Constitution states that the state shall endeavor to secure a Uniform Civil Code for the citizens throughout the territory of India. In other words, there shall prevail no ambiguity in general matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption irrespective of any religious community.
Though it has been formulated to harmonize diverse cultural groups, it has always been a debatable topic and a center of a political narrative for over a century and a priority of the current ruling party as per their promise of 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
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The debate for a uniform civil code, with its diverse implications and concerning secularism in the country, is one of the most controversial issues in twenty-first-century Indian politics. The major problems for implementing it are the country’s diversity and religious laws, which not only differ sect-wise but also by community, caste, and region. Women’s rights groups have said that this issue is only based on their rights and security, irrespective of its politicization. The arguments for it are: its mention in Article 44 of the Constitution, need for strengthening the unity and integrity of the country, rejection of different laws for different communities, the importance for gender equality, and reforming the archaic personal laws of Muslims—which allow unilateral divorce and polygamy. The topic mainly arose after the case of Shah Bano in 1985 which eventually became a leading case and induced the need to have a unified code.
Importance of UCC
Dr. B R Ambedkar, while formulating the Constitution had said that a UCC is desirable but for the moment it should remain voluntary, and thus the Article 35 of the draft Constitution was added as a part of the Directive Principles of the State Policy in part IV of the Constitution of India as Article 44. It was incorporated in the Constitution as an aspect that would be fulfilled when the nation would be ready to accept it and the social acceptance to the UCC could be made. To this, he also added, “No one need be apprehensive that if the State has the power, the State will immediately proceed to execute…that power in a manner may be found to be objectionable by the Muslims or by the Christians or by any other community. I think it would be a mad government if it did so.”
The UCC aims to provide protection to vulnerable sections as envisaged by Ambedkar including women and religious minorities, while also promoting nationalistic fervor through unity. When enacted the code will work to simplify laws that are segregated at present on the basis of religious beliefs like the Hindu code bill, Shariat law, and others. The code will simplify the complex laws around marriage ceremonies, inheritance, succession, adoptions making them one for all. The same civil law will then be applicable to all citizens irrespective of their faith.
Origin and History of UCC:
During the British Colonial rule, 1835, the ruling government felt the need for uniformity in the codification of Indian law relating to crimes, evidence, and contracts, specifically taking into account that the personal laws of Hindus and Muslims be kept outside such codification. According to their understanding of religious divisions in India, the British separated this sphere which would be governed by religious scriptures and customs of the various communities.
Throughout the country, there was a variation in preference for scriptural or customary laws because, in many Hindu and Muslim communities, these were sometimes in conflict. The Hindu laws got preference because of their relative ease in the implementation, preference for such a Brahminical system by both British and Indian judges, and their fear of opposition from the high caste Hindus. The difficulty in investigating each specific practice of any community, case-by-case, made customary laws harder to implement. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, favoring local opinion, the recognition of individual customs and traditions increased.
The Muslim Personal law (based on Sharia law), was not strictly enforced as compared to the Hindu law. It had no uniformity in its application at lower courts and was severely restricted because of bureaucratic procedures. This led to the customary law, which was often more discriminatory against women, to be applied over it. Women, mainly in northern and western India, often were restrained from property inheritance and dowry settlements, both of which the Sharia provides. Due to pressure from the Muslim elite, the Shariat law of 1937 was passed which stipulated that all Indian Muslims would be governed by Islamic laws on marriage, divorce, maintenance, adoption, succession, and inheritance.
The Hindu Code Bill
The draft of the Rau Committee report was submitted to a select committee chaired by B R Ambedkar that came up for discussion in 1951 after the adoption of the Constitution. While discussions continued, the Hindu Code Bill lapsed and was resubmitted in 1952. The bill was then adopted in 1956 as the Hindu Succession Act to amend and codify the law relating to intestate or unwilled succession, among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. The Act reformed the Hindu personal law and gave women greater property rights, and ownership. It gave women property rights in their father’s estate.
The general rules of succession under the Act 1956 for a male who dies intestate are that heirs in Class I succeed in preference to heirs in other classes. An amendment to the Act in the year 2005 added more descendants elevating females to Class I heirs. The daughter is allotted the same share as is allotted to a son. To know about the “Cognizable and Non-Cognizable Offence” can visit the site Law Planet.
The Shah Bano Case
Shah 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 favor 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 a 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. The then prevailing 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 sensationalizing 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 organizations 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 centered on the divinity of their personal law. A Muslim member of parliament made a claim emphasizing 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 than their own women.
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Current Legal Status
UCC had been included in BJP’s manifesto for the 1998 and 2019 elections and was even proposed for introduction in parliament for the first time in November 2019 by Narayan Lal Panchariya. Amid protests by other MPs, the bill although soon was withdrawn for making certain amendments. The bill was brought for the second time by Kirodi Lal Meena in March 2020 but was not introduced again. As per reports that emerged in 2020, the bill is being contemplated in BJP due to differences with RSS.