The Uniform Civil Code isn’t merely a political agenda. It caters to India’s unification with a structural change in society to facilitate gender equality. The UCC can be regarded as being against the idea of divisive politics, which has always been the prime agenda of colonial design. It would be correct to assess the UCC as the final chapter in the history of India’s freedom struggle, because its implementation could correct the wrong bargains made by the sovereign after the Partition. The UCC is a step towards integrating and strengthening secular ideals of India.
The UCC will ensure empowerment of women in true sense by ending the practice of polygamy, which is currently permitted under Islamic law and is highly unfair and discriminatory to women.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar had pioneered the cause of gender equality, which led him to create the UCC in the 1950s. He was always a staunch and ardent supporter of the UCC. Followed by stiff opposition from religious conservatives, he had to retreat and re-strategise the bill. A highly politicised issue, when the Delhi High court asked the Centre to take steps towards bringing a uniform civil code, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mentioned in its manifesto that the party’s goal was to champion the cause of gender equality across religions. But the highly alluring grandeur of gender equality still remains a distant dream for Indian women.
The Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav that India is celebrating with fervour could not have been possible without the contribution of women and men from all backgrounds of our highly stratified society. While the makers of our Constitution brainstormed on how the document could be all-inclusive of values like justice, equality and pluralism, the UCC was on the agenda from the onset. Patriarchy once again manoeuvred the nation’s politics under the garb of religious sentiments. The UCC was added to Article 44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy.
A turning point
Drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with modern times, the UCC is sure to be a turning point in the history of Indian legislation. Owing to India’s diversity, it becomes difficult to overlook how the laws of each religion evolve separately and sporadically. A common, uniform, and evolved set of regulations of civil issues plaguing the society will have far-reaching impact. Ambedkar ensured the introduction of the Hindu Code Bill in the 1950s preceding huge reforms in marriage, guardianship, divorce, and inheritance despite protests from different chambers in the legislature. Even the effort of the Supreme Court to bring some parity in the status of Muslim women (Shah Bano case) was blocked by the myopic view of the Rajiv Gandhi government which believed that personal law fell in the domain of religious commune.
The UCC is moulded and worded in such a way that it promotes fundamental rights of women across all religions, castes and classes of society and gives them an equal right to inheritance, decision in marriage, divorce, adoption, etc. While several attempts have been made to codify the Hindu law with the Hindu Code Bill that was introduced in 1948, the current government’s agenda is clear — to unify all personal laws for all religions and castes alike. The central government’s stance on the UCC shows it believes that real progress of a country means progress not only on the political plane, not only on the economic plane, but also on the social plane.
There has been a lot of debate in favour and against the UCC. But one of the most important voices to be considered is that of the Supreme Court’s, which has amplified its support for the UCC in various judgments, calling it “an unaddressed constitutional expectation” and had “hoped and expected that the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territories of India”.
The critics of the UCC must think again. Perhaps a perspective of the western world would elucidate the impending need of a set of laws that would be applied on everyone in the same manner, without malice, fear, favour, or discrimination. The concept of civil law can be traced back to the Romans or even the code of Ur-Nammu of Mesopotamia. In Europe, the first country that codified civil laws in a methodical manner was France. Even countries like the UK, China, US, Russia, etc. have codified civil laws. In fact, there are very few countries where common civil laws do not exist, evidence that it facilitates dispensing justice in a fair and neutral manner.
India’s complex diversity makes the execution and applicability of the UCC difficult. However if we are to live in a truly unified and harmonious society, where each person is treated equally, accepting and enforcing a UCC is the need of the hour.
Aditi Narayani Paswan is assistant professor, Delhi University. She tweets @AditiNarayani. Views are personal.
Vasundhara Shankar is managing partner of Verum Legal, a law firm. She tweets @VSVasundhara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)