Can India make Uniform Civil Code a reality?

India’s government is renewing a plan to create a uniform legal system that would replace a patchwork of religious codes. However, there is concern the UCC will be used to further entrench policies favouring Hindus
Can India make Uniform Civil Code a reality?

Political debate on creating a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India has gone on for over a century, and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now prioritising making the UCC a reality. The UCC would replace the various personal laws governing different religious communities in India. It calls for the formulation of one law to be applicable in matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. The UCC has also been seen as a means of ensuring more rights for women and securing gender equality. “Political exigencies should not become a roadblock to empowerment of women. I hope, this time, UCC becomes reality,” Aditi Narayani Paswan, an assistant professor of sociology at Delhi University, told DW.

Many Indian governments in the past have stayed away from amending these religious and customary laws in fear of angering voters belonging to the Hindu majority.

However, since 2019, the BJP has made getting the UCC done a priority in its political manifesto. In April, the BJP Chief Minister of the northern Uttarakhand state, Pushkar Singh Dhami, announced an expert panel that would examine the possibility of applying the UCC in the state. Besides Uttarakhand, two other BJP-ruled states, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, have also pushed for bringing the UCC. India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, recently told party functionaries at the BJP office in Madhya Pradesh that it was “time to focus” on a Uniform Civil Code.

The issue has also gained traction recently in India’s Supreme Court, especially after the top court indicated that the government should explore the UCC as a means to secure gender justice, equality and dignity of women. Hindu religious codes apply in cases such as the division of matrimonial assets and child support after divorce.

However, replacing these so-called personal laws with a uniform law is likely to meet resistance among Hindus and other tribal communities in India. “It is going to be difficult to unify such laws. For example, even though Hindus follow some personal laws, they also recognise customs and practices of different communities in different states. How can one seek uniformity?” Seema Misra, an attorney, told DW. There is also concern that the UCC will be used by India’s government to further entrench policies favouring India’s Hindu majority.

Rebecca Mammen, a criminal lawyer, told DW that the UCC could provide a vehicle to further alienate minority communities amid a growing climate of intolerance and prejudice. “I fear the Uniform Civil Code will seek to impose an unwelcome set of rules and regulations on minority communities, disregarding their own cultural and religious tenets. In a country as diverse as India, that would further marginalise vulnerable communities,” Mammen said.

“The scrapping of special status of Kashmir and the so-called “anti-love jihad” campaign, a revolting term used to describe interfaith marriages, are all part of a basket of communal measures introduced by the ruling party for consolidating their majoritarian vote bank,” added Mammen. Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association said that the bid to open the debate on UCC must be viewed with caution amid the current communal tensions.

“The manner in which the government frames the issue of UCC and reforms of personal laws suggests that they are concerned more with imposing a communally defined uniformity on minorities in the country, rather than addressing concerns of gender justice,” Krishnan told DW. Legislating the UCC hangs on several crucial questions, such as criteria for marriage and divorce, the processes for adoption, and property inheritance rules. For instance, property succession and marriage laws among tribes in the northeastern state of Meghalaya are governed by their traditional matrilineal code.

Similarly, indigenous communities in other northeastern states have their own distinct laws and bringing in a UCC is likely to meet complications. However, Rakesh Sinha, a BJP lawmaker who is tabling a bill to legislate the UCC, told DW the UCC will not marginalise any community. “In a liberal democracy equal treatment on certain basic issues like marriage and divorce inheritance without diluting the internal autonomy and identity of any group is essentially a powerful tool for constitutional governance,” Sinha told DW.

“Rituals, customs and certain practices that do not harm the cardinal principles of liberty, equality and justice will remain uncontested by the UCC,” he added. However, Vasundhara Shankar, managing partner of Verum Legal, a law firm, told DW that it is far from certain whether the BJP will be able to pull off pushing through the UCC. “To be able to convince one and all about the benefits of a law which questions the very grounds of one’s religious beliefs, and sanctioned applicability of their faith in their lives, is going to be a difficult task at hand, especially in a diverse and polarised India.”

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