Uniform civil code: Let us start the debate towards inclusion

Uniform civil code: Let us start the debate towards inclusion

There needs to be a national debate and discussion on Uniform Civil Code once again.

Then Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had raised the issue of starting a consultation on it a few weeks ago.

A senior member of a women’s organisation, a Congress member, also raised this issue a month ago; she mentioned this in the context of restoring equal human rights to married Muslim women.

During the recent general elections, the BJP had this as one of the items on its election manifesto.

Having uniform civil code would mean changing an entire array of personal laws related to marriage, divorce and maintenance issues, property matters, inheritance, adoption etc.

In our country, we have separate laws governing these matters, considered as ‘personal’ for different religious groups.

For instance, the laws pertaining to inheritance are different for Hindus and Christians.

When the child of a Christian woman dies, she does not inherit her child’s property unless there is a specific will left by the child.

The property goes to the child’s father; and in the absence of him, to the siblings of the deceased.

Personal laws for Muslim religion are, again, quite different.

For example, a Muslim woman cannot inherit agricultural land.

Thus, while we have the laws regarding crime and regarding contract and evidence common to all citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation and being uniformly applicable, the ‘personal’ laws are separately applicable for the different religious groups.

Like many of the apparent inconsistencies in our legal system, these variations in the laws too have been inherited by us through the British Raj.

The British may have had a good reason to humour each of the religious groups; it might have fitted well with their need to create a division amongst the people they ruled.

It made each of these groups feel uniquely ‘recognised’ by the masters, in the process gaining their loyalty.

And, by this one wily move, the rift between the people was made long-lasting.

On the face of it, however, it was proclaimed by the Queen to be an act of absolute non-interference in the religious matters of the Indian people.

A supposedly ‘benevolent’ act by the British monarch that has led to festering distrust and division within the populace!

When India became independent, we continued with the laws of the British Raj.

However, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru desired to change the provision of personal laws with an intention of bringing uniformity of legal rights across all citizens.

But, the various religious groups perceived any change in the personal laws to be uncomfortable.

President Rajendra Prasad and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel too opposed any move to change the then existing personal laws.

One of the possible reasons for such an opposition may have been the fact that Bhimrao Ambedkar, the tall Dalit leader, was said to be eager to bring in this change.

He thought that the orthodox Hindu customs and traditions were largely responsible for the poor condition of the Dalit population.

Therefore, he was in the forefront of the move to usher in a uniform civil code.

However, it is said, Ambedkar was not liked by many Hindu leaders and hence such a move may have been resisted by them.

Later, the continuance of these separate laws for different religious groups of citizens was justified under the term ’secular state’.

The term ‘secular’ has been interpreted to mean ‘insularity’ rather than to mean ‘equality under law’.

Thus, it may not be wrong to surmise that ‘secularism’ as practiced in Indian polity is tantamount to keeping divisions alive for perpetuity.

The nation has completed 67 years after independence.

After such a long time of adjustment among the various groups, it is only in the fitness of things to attempt to bring in further integration amongst the people of this nation.

Secularism and equality

If being ‘secular’ meant respecting each other’s faith or beliefs, it should encompass issues of faith and beliefs regarding several aspects of life in addition to the religion to which one belongs.

Thus, ‘secularism’ should bring in more equality regarding marital rights, reproductive rights, rights regarding sexuality, inheritance, property rights, and in general ‘human rights’.

Gender equality is definitely an issue to be addressed. Needless to say, there is an urgent need for it in our country.

There are also various aspects of human rights, including the rights of the LGBT community.

Secularism does not refer exclusively to religious faith. Secularism means the freedom to pursue one’s convictions and lifestyle without hindrance from those who think or live differently.

However, personal freedom has its restrictions prescribed by the society and the legal system that embodies these social limits. 

Such a legal system has to be equal for all citizens.

There is Article 44 of Directive Principles which states that “the State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”

Hence, the debate or ‘thinking aloud’ on the process of integration of the legal provisions would actually be an implementation of this suggestion.

India is already quite low on Human Rights Index as compared to most other nations of the world.

We need to move up this scale, if we aspire to be recognised as a developed nation, as a developed economy and as a progressive society by the global community.

The continuance of the several aspects of ‘personal laws’ hinders the attainment of this goal.

We need to debate, discuss and see as to how we could be an even better inclusive society.

Uniform civil code is not for one group of religionists alone.

It is for the process of enhancing integration and inclusion, for strengthening the fraternity amongst all of us, and for building a stronger India.

(The writer is former professor, IIM, Bangalore)

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