Put on your uniform, civil code

The concept of the UCC has been tossed around in India for years, enticing politicians and activists with visions of a homogeneous society.
Put on your uniform, civil code

Prime Minister Modi managed to stir up a hornet’s nest with his latest salvo about the need for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in the country. Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal called it a “thoughtless exercise”. In the land of diversity where a plethora of cultures, religions and traditions coexist, there looms a mythical creature known as the UCC. The mere mention of this elusive beast sends shivers down the spines of some and instils hope in the hearts of others.

The Law Commission’s Report of 2021 states that the UCC should not be implemented. So is this yet another rabble-rousing blanket statement by the PM? The demand for the UCC was first put forward by women activists at the beginning of the 20th century, with the objective of women’s rights, equality and secularism. In the 1950s, the Indian Parliament passed the Hindu Code bills. Although Prime Minister Nehru, along with women activists, made a demand for the UCC, they had to finally accept the compromise of it being added to the Directive Principles.

The concept of the UCC has been tossed around in India for years, enticing politicians and activists with visions of a homogeneous society. Like a reluctant ghost, however, it has eluded implementation due to the sheer complexity of accommodating diverse religious and cultural practices.

From Hindu Personal Law to Muslim Personal Law, from Christian Marriage Act to Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, each religious community has its own set of rules. It’s like a symphony of legal chaos. The debate about the UCC was reignited in 1985 when Shah Bano, a Muslim woman sought maintenance from her divorced husband. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour, prompting a fierce backlash from conservative groups, forcing the government to overturn the decision. This episode highlights the delicate balance between religious practices and gender equality, which the UCC would undoubtedly disrupt.

Venture into idyllic Goa, where the Portuguese Civil Code is still in force. The state has its own set of rules governing matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, which differ significantly from those followed in other parts of the country. According to their Civil Code, if a man over 30 years of age does not have an heir, he can marry again. The implementation of the national UCC will surely send the Susegad-loving Goans into a tizzy. 

Northeast India is where myriad indigenous communities thrive, each having a strong attachment to their cultural heritage and their traditional civil codes which reflect their unique identities. Imposing the UCC would not only trample on their distinct cultural practices but also ignite resentment and further marginalise these already under-represented communities.

What will happen to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) and the millions who conduct their business under the HUF? What about the Maitri Karar (Friendship Contract) of Gujarat that legitimises a matrimonial-type relationship, most commonly between a married man and his unmarried mistress?

Some argue that the UCC could foster unity and equality among citizens. But who needs unity when you can have a smorgasbord of diversity? For now, the UCC appears to be a vacuous election statement bereft of any proposal or draft. While the idea of a uniform legal framework may seem appealing on the surface, it is too complex, too sensitive, too vast and too diverse to bring under one umbrella. 

Anirban Bhattacharyya

Author, actor and standup comic


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