Historically, when we look at the evolution of UCC (Uniform Civil Code) its highly ironical. It was Congress leaders like Nehru, Ambedkar, Left parties and their associated ‘Mahilla Mandalis’ which were vociferous in pushing for UCC. At that time it was Hindu groups which opposed it, even though they had justified to an extent.
The Nehru Government was only able to push through Hindu Code Act replacing archaic Anglo-Hindu code; but never touched other religion’s Civil Code, since majority of the Hindus were progressive mind and never mind adopting to modernity, while other religions especially Muslim and Christianity wanted to follow Anglo version of Civil Codes (This was the first among many issues where Nehru’s ‘Secular’ image got severe beating).
Our founding fathers of Indian Constitution envisaged the dream of bringing whole of India under a common civil code and putting an end to a hodgepodge of religious laws. Infact Article 44 of the Directive Principles, enshrined in the Constitution, sets implementation of uniform civil code as the “duty of the State”. In 1985, India’s Supreme Court recommended that the Indian lawmakers should consider legislating it. There were no takers for that.
Let’s look at the background before analyzing the necessity for UCC . When British East India Company came to India their only aim was initially making profit. Looking at the highly fragmented society in a state of flux, they saw an opportunity in building empire. The Brits quickly realized that whatever you do, never touch the religious beliefs of the natives. [As a sidenote, this conniving ‘liberal attitude’ towards religions was a primary reason Brits were able to build a global empire, while the evangelical colonists got booted out (French, Portugese, Dutch et.al).]
Hence, British East India Company never interfered with local custom and allowed respective personal laws to govern various religious groups, with their version of Civi code that governed marriages, inheritance, divorce, etc. The cruel tragedy is Anglo-Hindu law was prepared by British scholars who studied the Hindu scriptures (so much for its legitimacy).
The contemporary world, at that time when these laws were enacted, were actually regressive when it came to women. Even though Hinduism and its law were slightly more liberal on feminine issues, the Anglo-Hindu Code took the worst of Hindu culture and the worst of the World culture of the time.
So then came reforming Hindu laws in 1956. During the drafting of Constitution and Indian Laws, Indian lawmakers came across many Anglo-Laws based on bad religious interpretations and bad ideas of 19th Century Victorian age. We still have many in law books, that’s topic for another discussion. Indian government in a four landmark legislations enabled modernization of Hindu religious code – allowing divorce, alimony, equal inheritance to sons & daughters and adoption and making polygamy punishable.
While the Hindu code was reformed, other religions were allowed to keep the 19th century era laws (substantially anti-women). Thus, Muslim women have to put up with polygamy, unilateral divorce and restricted of access to alimony or inheritance. While in Christianity, single woman cannot adopt a child, the divorce was not allowed among Catholics, divorce process was unduly long requiring sanction from Church. So the Indian Secularism was made into joke and one-sided.
Nehru as usual in his hallmark gullible stupidity thought eventually all the communities would come under the same reforms. Unfortunately that would not happen as India got severely distracted with major wars & internal disturbances in the 60s and 70s. Pandering to religious vote-banks for power was defined into a fine-art by successive Govts.
So UCC issue went into a coma until when in 1980s, the landmark Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum case highlighted the lack of modern civil laws for Muslim women. Since then the uniform civil code has become a national issue.
The process started in 1956 is incomplete as the forward-looking laws (for its time) is now applied only to Hindus and non-religious (who come under Special Marriage Act) not other religious communities in India.
Let’s examine what the Supreme Court had observed sometime back:
“Those who preferred to remain in India after the partition fully knew that the Indian leaders did not believe in two-nation or three-nation theory and that in the Indian Republic there was to be only one nation— and no community could claim to remain a separate entity on the basis of religion”
The common civil code is needed to enable the application of modern laws (such as abolishing polygamy) to all sections of Indian society and also create a common framework for progressive laws that all sections of Indian society can enjoy.
As Supreme Court Justice Kuldip Singh said:
“Where more than 80 % of the citizens have already been brought under the codified personal law there is no justification whatsoever to keep in abeyance, any more, the introduction of the ‘uniform civil code’ for all the citizens in the territory of India.”
Whether we want to implement the full uniformity right now or not, we should set one basic principle: All laws must treat men and women as equals. No religious law should be able to override this fundamental principle. That means polygamy, unfair inheritance and unfair divorce laws allowed for minority groups MUST GO.
Picture Credit: Youth Ki Awaaz
Author is Shiva Venkat.