Revisiting Uniform Civil Code: A Means to develop common national identity?

As the country prepares for the election, its time to look at the much debated Uniform Civil Code again.

Article 44 of the Indian Constitution talks about the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code throughout the country. It means that all the personal religious laws shall be kept aside and a uniform set of laws governing areas like marriage, divorce, succession etc. shall be formulated. In other words, the uniform law would be applicable to all irrespective of caste, creed, color or religion. Such a set of laws, in my opinion, would not be feasible in a diverse country like India.

The issue of a UCC has been excessively politicized and too much focus has been placed on the personal laws of Hindus and Muslims only. Hindu nationalists are demanding an urgent implementation of a UCC as they believe that the Muslim personal laws are highly discriminatory and unjust towards Muslim women. On the other hand, Muslims believe that the implementation of UCC would erase their identity as the law would bring in the majoritarian views and beliefs.

The issue is polarized too much to two extremes i.e. discriminatory Muslim personal law and uniformity of Hindu law that it does not consider the existence of other communities, religions or sects. The debate on UCC rarely talks about the effect of such law on the tribal communities who have their own set laws, very different from the mainstream Hindu and Muslim personal law.

It is a matter of fact that none of the groups would like to follow the customs or practices any different from their own personal law. For example, Hindus would not like to lose the notion of sacramental marriage and bring in the contractual nature of marriage as described in Muslim personal law and vice versa, even if the latter is giving a better bargaining status to Muslim women in terms of matrimonial right and liabilities.

Hindus would also not like to let go of their patrilineal inheritance structure to bring in the matrilineal succession structure of certain tribes of North- East. Such issues, especially in the absence of a draft structure of the law, are left unanswered by the central government pressing for the implementation of uniform laws. Basically, the details as to how the government plans on tackling the issue of diversity is severely lacking.

Moreover, the claim of Hindu nationalists that their laws are uniform and non- discriminatory towards women are baseless as various groups among Hinduism itself have different customs and practices. For example, incestuous relations are prohibited in Hindu personal laws but certain Hindu southern communities allow the marriage between a niece and an uncle.

The main argument of those who spoke in favour of such a code was that it has the potential to unite India because Hindus and Muslims had followed the “common customary Hindu civil code” smoothly till 1937 when “the Muslim League-British combine” divided them by imposing sharia on Muslims through the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act.

But only a minuscule minority of Muslims followed Hindu customs before 1937. Even this section had the right under laws such as the Cutchi Memons Act, 1920 and the Mahomedan Inheritance Act (II of 1897) to opt for “Mahomedan Law”. As for a majority of Muslims, there is enough evidence to show they followed Muslim law, not the Hindu civil code.

A uniform civil code cannot develop a common national identity and further national integration. Rather, the propaganda of Hindu nationalists to create a “national race” through UCC can communalize the matter further and bring out protests from minority communities dismantling the communal harmony of the country.

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