When authority comes in the way of autonomy

Uttarakhand UCC’s approach to cohabitation displays poor understanding about what cohabitation is, its value in a healthy society, and why people choose it.
Image of a couple used for representational purposes only
Image of a couple used for representational purposes only

CHENNAI : The state of Uttarakhand has introduced a Uniform Civil Code pertaining to marriage, divorce, relationships, and inheritance. It will apply across denominations, with the exception of Adivasi people. The state is the first to introduce a UCC after India became independent; Goa already has one — but it was implemented under Portuguese colonial rule in 1867.

Uttarakhand’s UCC will become law after President Droupadi Murmu approves it, which she almost certainly will do, as she went on record just last year in praise of Goa’s existing code.

Uniform Civil Codes, whether in effect within an individual state or union territory or for the nation at large, are highly contentious because while they theoretically purport to support equality and secularism, in practice they are strongly likely to be used to strip minorities of their rights. While the concerns of religious and cultural minorities are obvious, there are various other ways in which oppression can occur. Uttarakhand’s new UCC notably targets live-in relationships: couples will be required to officially register their cohabiting status after an enquiry process, and must also deregister their relationship should it come to an end. If any individual in such a relationship is under 21 years old, parents or guardians will be informed, even though that person may already be an adult with other rights of age-majority, including to vote and to own property, as well as to marry.

This has proved rightfully controversial, as the UCC curtails personal freedoms and choices. It does so under the guise of safety, specifically women’s safety — but this is obfuscation. It merely seeks to bring into the control of the state, the choices people make beyond the bounds of matrimony, which is an institution that is statistically and traditionally dangerous for women. Lawmakers and others truly concerned about women’s safety in intimate partnerships would turn their attention to marriage and its underbelly first and foremost, rather than actively police more nebulous forms of partnership.

While the UCC arguably does concern itself with marriage and divorce too, such as by banning polygamy, there are other affected areas — ones in which harassment and repression slide in quietly. This time, what may have been fine print has somehow, and fortunately, become the main talking point.

Image of a couple used for representational purposes only
Legal experts term Uttarakhand UCC on live-in relationship as invasion of privacy

This UCC is likely to set a precedent for other ones, including one potentially on the national level, which has long been planned and has always made those with progressive values uncomfortable. The Uttarakhand UCC’s approach to cohabitation displays poor understanding about what cohabitation is, its value in a healthy society, and why people choose it instead of marriage.

It not just formalises relationships that are deliberately informal, it also punishes autonomy in the context of personal freedoms, and criminalises love and happiness. It will be used against interfaith couples, inter-caste couples, queer couples, people who are not partners but choose to share domesticity, people fleeing abusive families of origin, and even (perhaps to their own shock) people who may fit neatly into various privilege markers but who choose not to marry. It will be used to force people into trajectories not of their choosing. A cage may be secure, but it is never safe.

Sharanya Manivannan

@she_of_the_sea

The columnist is a writer and illustrator

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