Uniform Civil Code: Diversity cannot be an excuse for discrimination

In any other country, the liberals would have been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights, but not in India.

Published: 09th July 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th July 2023 03:13 PM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

Once again, the issue of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is hitting the headlines. For a long time, one of the directive principles of our Constitution, Article 44, has been the victim of sectarian politics.

The Opposition accuses the ruling party of raising the matter to create communal tension and division by bringing UCC into the limelight to harvest political gains in the coming elections. There may be merit in the accusation about the timing of the proposed UCC Bill, but there is no merit in the opposition to the bill itself.

A uniform civil code is to ensure equality before the law in the matters of property, marriage, inheritance, adoption etc., for all the citizens of India, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or gender.

Article 44 says the state shall endeavour to secure a UCC for the citizens throughout the territory of India; however, even after 75 years, we cannot even start the groundwork of framing, let alone implement it.

The persistent argument is that it violates the constitutional freedom to practise the religion of choice. So, we have different laws for different communities, and personal laws are often based on religious codes and tribal practices. Those who oppose UCC often cite the diversity of India as a reason for not having a common civil law.

Diversity cannot be an excuse for discrimination. While acknowledging that many religious laws and customs are highly patriarchal and discriminatory, some of those who oppose UCC say society needs to reform from within and we cannot bring change through legislation.

It is a bizarre argument against historical precedences and can be attributed to their eagerness to patronise religious fundamentalists. As men have been the custodians of most religions, discrimination against women is common to all.

Most religious customs, law books and traditions were defined, propagated and protected by men, and it is no wonder that patriarchy ruled the roost for the better part of history. Human civilisation always had many social evils sanctioned by religious texts. Slavery, caste system, untouchability, sati, prohibition of widow remarriage etc., are only a few examples of religious laws and traditions sanctioned by the so-called holy texts of various religions.

None of these evils withered away because the priests and custodians of orthodoxy had a change of heart one fine morning and decided to correct their holy texts. We have always seen that reforms happen only when a progressive government supports bold reformers through legislation. Without a sympathetic government, the works of those like Raja Rammohun Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen would have come to nought.

Without the support of Nehru and Congress, the Hindu Code Bill, led by Dr BR Ambedkar, would not have seen the light of day. At that time, the personal laws of the Hindus were so regressive that many considered Sharia far ahead in terms of gender parity. The Bill codified laws related to women’s autonomy, independence and rights. Hindu women got equality in marriage laws, divorce, maintenance, adoption, guardianship etc.

The bill was passed against powerful opposition of the Hindu orthodoxy, and yet, it remains one of the most important laws that gave women in the majority community an equal chance in life. The life of a Hindu woman of modern India will be unthinkable and unrecognisable for her counterpart from the last century.

Unfortunately, the same Parliament, which had the conviction and courage to take on the Hindu orthodoxy in 1954, shied away from implementing such reforms among other communities. It is not that there aren’t reformers among Muslims or tribal communities, but unfortunately, their voice is being suppressed by the vociferous orthodoxy.

In any other country, the liberals would have been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights, but not in India. It is ironic that a political party, which is often accused of playing Hindu majoritarian politics, is now speaking for the equal rights of women while the liberals are opposing it and demanding the status quo of a patriarchal system.

Just like the Hindu Succession Act, which liberated women from the clutches of Smritis and ancient texts and brought them to modernity, the UCC can liberate Muslim and tribal women, if properly implemented.

Instead of blindly siding with the fundamentalist and conservatives of Islam in opposing the UCC and thus leaving the reformers of that religion without any agency, the Opposition and media should force debate and deliberation inside and outside Parliament.

This will ensure that the UCC will be implemented without discrimination against any community. Otherwise, the chances are that it will be passed anyway, but will go the way of the triple talaq law, which, while necessary to ban the deplorable act, added a harsh and discriminatory clause criminalising it.

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series,Vanara and Bahubali trilogy



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