Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi go for a Uniform Civil Code, particularly after the prompting of the Supreme Court last week? The Apex Court has once again batted for such a Code last week, pointing out that the framers of the Constitution had hoped that the state would bring in such a code. Justice Deepak Gupta, on Friday said: “Though Hindu laws were codified in the year 1956, there has been no attempt to frame a Uniform Civil Code applicable to all citizens of the country despite exhortations.” He noted further, “A belief seems to have gained ground that it is for the Muslim community to take a lead in the matter of reforms of their personal law. No community is likely to bell the cat by making gratuitous concessions on this issue. It is the State which is charged with the duty of securing a uniform civil code for the citizens of the country and, unquestionably, it has the legislative competence to do so.” Citing the case of Goa, the court asked why the Centre has not brought an UCC.
The Apex court’s observation has strengthened the Modi government’s resolve to bring the UCC, which is part of the core agenda of the Sangh Parivar. The BJP has also managed to nuance its narrative adding the issue of gender equality.
What is the UCC? Under the Uniform Civil Code, all personal religious laws in the country including marriage, divorce, property rights, inheritance and maintenance will be brought under a secular umbrella in a unified way. Right now several religious communities follow their own personal laws.
The BJP’s argument is that though Hindu laws were codified in 1956, there is no law applicable to all citizens of the country.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, while defending the introduction of the Hindu code bill in Parliament in 1954 said ‘I do not think that at the present moment the time is ripe in India for me to try to push it through”. Today, Modi has the mandate and the ability as well as willingness to bring the UCC.
Taking advantage of the weak and divided opposition, the Prime Minister has already pushed through two controversial bills in Parliament – Triple Talaaq and the abrogation of Article 370 in his second term despite not having a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Ram temple issue is in the court. Though the Law Commission in its report last year said that UCC is ‘neither necessary nor desirable at this stage’, when there is an absence of consensus, the party has promised in 2019 manifesto to bring the UCC. However, the immediate priority of the government is to deal with the economic situation and Kashmir. There is trouble in Northeast on the NRC. Then there are elections to three State Assemblies – Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand soon. Therefore the work on UCC could be taken up after that.
Supporters of the UCC argue that it is long overdue. The issue was discussed during the Constituent Assembly debates where B.R. Ambedkar was batting for it but many Constituent Assembly members shot it down. Thus it was added to the Part IV of the Constitution as one of the Directive principles of State policy.
Secondly, Modi’s vision of the New India is also young India with 65 per cent of the population under 25. These youth are influenced by global views and would appreciate the UCC. Thirdly it would promote national integration. Fourthly it would provide gender justice. Fifthly, the UCC would provide one law for all citizens.
The opponents point out that the Muslims perceive the UCC as an encroachment to their religious freedom even though some of the Islamic countries have adopted a common law for all. They also note that there is no consensus.
But today, the issue is more political than legal and every time the subject comes up there is a heated debate from both its supporters and opponents. As for political parties, there is no consensus and most of them use it for vote bank politics. The Congress wants a political consensus. The Samajwadi party has accused the BJP of doing it for Muslim votes. The BJP ally JD (U) has diplomatically asked for consultation with all stakeholders. The CPI-M wants reforms across all religions. The NCP wants discussions on a broader spectrum. The AIMIM is opposed to it. The Shiv Sena supports it. So where is the consensus?
However, there is merit in having one law for all. One can understand the stand of the Muslims but the Congress and other political parties should not play politics in bringing uniformity in laws. In the eighties even Rajiv Gandhi had explored the possibility of introducing a voluntary civil code. One nation, one law’ is a necessity and the sooner the UCC comes, the better though it is a sensitive issue and should be handled delicately by having more public debates and discussions to bring about a consensus. (IPA)