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Towards Equality and Unity: Understanding India's Quest for a Uniform Civil Code

'Uniform Civil Code is the need of the hour for India's progress and unity'. - B.R. Ambedkar

The Uniform Civil Code has been an argumentative issue in Indian society, reflecting the tension between tradition and modernity, diversity and unity, and individual rights versus society norms.

The Uniform Civil Code aims to establish a single countrywide law that would apply to all communities in matters of personal law, such as adoption, inheritance, and marriage. The Uniform Civil Code in India will replace the existing religious personal laws in India and have a uniform law that will cater to all citizens, irrespective of their religion. It aims to promote equality, justice, and secularism by eliminating discriminatory practices embedded in religious personal laws.

The notion of Uniform Civil Code is categorically stated in Article 44 as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy in Part-IV of the Indian Constitution. A country's Uniform Civil Code is not just a matter of justice, it is also a matter of how a country accommodates its diverse population. While the Indian Constitution calls for the enactment of a Uniform Civil Code, predecessor governments have tried, yet hesitated to enact comprehensive reforms due to political sensitivities and eyeing protests, instability nation-wide.

However, periodic attempts have been made to reform specific aspects of personal laws. Even in the pre-independence times, criminal laws were codified and made common for the whole country, though the personal laws continued to be governed by separate codes for different communities. The prominent leaders that time including the first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar pushed for a Uniform Civil Code and highlighted its features.

The Supreme Court of India has spoken about Uniform Civil Code many times through its cases. In the landmark case, Mohd. Ahmed Khan versus Shah Bano Begum (1985), the Supreme Court ruled that Muslim women were entitled to maintenance beyond the iddat period under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It also observed that a Uniform Civil Code would help in removing contradictions based on certain religious ideologies.

In the case of Sarla Mudgal versus Union of India (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu husband upon converting to Islam, cannot enter into a second marriage without dissolving his first marriage. The court emphasized the need for a Uniform Civil Code to ensure gender justice and equality. In the case, Shayara Bano versus Union of India (2017), the Supreme Court declared triple talaq unconstitutional, holding that it violated the fundamental rights of Muslim women. The verdict underscored the urgency of enacting a Uniform Civil Code to address gender discrimination and ensure uniform laws governing marriage and divorce.

There are some key words which require explanation when talking about the Uniform Civil Code, such as:

  • Equality - Ensuring equal rights and opportunities for all citizens under the law, irrespective of their religious or cultural background.
  • Secularism - Maintaining an impartial and unbiased attitude towards religion and ensuring the separation of religion from state affairs.
  • Diversity - Embracing the pluralistic nature of Indian society while promoting unity and social solidarity.
  • Discrimination - Addressing unjust treatment based on factors such as gender, religion, caste, or ethnicity, and striving for inclusivity and equal treatment for all.
In India, Goa is the first state to have a Uniform Civil Code, known as the Goa Civil Code or Goa Family Code and applies to all Goans, irrespective of their religious or ethnic community. Recently, the Uttarakhand government has also passed the Uttarakhand Uniform Civil Code Bill 2024, becoming the first state in India to implement a Uniform Civil Code. The Bill provides for a common law for matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance of property, etc., and applies to all residents of Uttarakhand except Scheduled Tribes. However, the nationwide implementation of a Uniform Civil Code remains an imponderable goal.

The 21st Law Commission of India, headed by Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan expressed that implementing a Uniform Civil Code might not be necessary or desirable at the time. Instead, it suggested a series of reforms within various personal laws pertaining to different communities. Although, the 22nd Law Commission of India, headed by Justice Rituraj Awasthi had contradictory judgement of UCC, as the Commission connected with public at large by inviting consultations on the UCC, seeking public feedback on the issue and this idea was largely applauded by the general public.

There are eminent jurists, politicians and other personalities who have passed remarks in favor and against the implementation of UCC. However, if ever the UCC is implemented following are suggestions of things to be kept in mind:
  • Dialogue and Consultation: There needs to be extensive dialogue and consultation with all stakeholders, including religious communities, legal experts, policymakers, and civil society organizations, to understand concerns and perspectives regarding the Uniform Civil Code.
  • Public Awareness: Conducting awareness campaigns and educational programs to inform the general public about the benefits and implications of the Uniform Civil Code.
  • Decoded Approach: The process of shifting to new laws from the previous personal laws will be tough and the same can be eased by putting them for public debates & scrutiny, it will arouse public consciousness towards UCC.
  • Inclusivity: A Uniform Civil Code should be drafted in such a manner that respects religious diversity while promoting gender equality and justice.
  • Implementation: Implementing the UCC in a phased manner, starting with areas where there is least resistance and gradually expanding its scope, can help mitigate concerns and ensure a smoother transition.
In conclusion, the Uniform Civil Code stands as a critical imperative for India's journey towards social justice, equality, and secularism. Despite some drawbacks and implementational challenges, Uniform Civil Code offers immense potential benefits. From ensuring gender equality and social cohesion to simplifying legal procedures and fostering modernization, the Uniform Civil Code holds the promise of protecting the oppressed as well as promoting national unity and solidarity.

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