UCC: Not politics, justice should be at the core of code

Historically, Nehru and Ambedkar championed it to further justice for women in our male-dominated religious society.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)

The Prime Minister batting for the Uniform Civil Code recently has intensified polarisation in our national discourse. While Indian women certainly need greater rights and freedoms, doubts are being raised about the timing of the pronouncement as we approach elections. The BJP’s manifesto promises UCC. Unemployment and rising prices are a bigger priority for opposition parties. The Muslim clergy is agitated as they feel it is a direct onslaught on their religious identity. The contours of the general election of 2024 seem to be set. The fundamental goal of gender justice and equality at the heart of common civil law is lost in the din of politics.

The UCC has been a contentious issue since its inception. Historically, Nehru and Ambedkar championed it to further justice for women in our male-dominated religious society. Staunch opposition from self-appointed guardians of “our ancient civilisation” and culture forced them to abandon the idea. Constituent Assembly debates on the subject make for interesting reading. The UCC was opposed tooth and nail by those who can be broadly called ideological forefathers of the BJP. Equally, it was opposed by Muslim leaders and some Congressmen.

Eventually, the Nehru government found a partial solution by introducing the Hindu Code Bills through the 1950s. Massive reform in Hindu personal laws followed. Women got legal rights in marriage and family matters, with Parliament passing various laws through 1955–56. Marriage was no more a sacrament as divorce became possible under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The custom amongst certain elites of taking two to three wives was now unlawful. Thirteen-year-old brides became a thing of the past. Hindu women and the entire society have benefitted from these reforms. Christian women can initiate divorce under the Indian Divorce Act, 2001, following various amendments passed by Parliament.

I refer to these reforms as only a partial solution because Muslim personal laws were left without any reform thanks to resistance from the clergy. Indian Muslims are governed by the Shariat law of 1937, we are told. But we don’t have Shariat laws written down anywhere. This law is silent on important aspects such as the age of marriage, procedure of divorce, polygamy, temporary marriages, nikah halala, succession—all of which impact women’s lives. Affirmative Quranic injunctions concerning women such as consent, meher, share in property and inheritance, guardianship and custody of children have not translated into reality. On the contrary, child marriages, polygamy, nikah halala, misyar and muta marriages are legally valid for Muslims. Quranic rights have not translated into reality, and Muslim women are paying the price for misogynist and discriminatory practices.

The BJP is seeking to capitalise on this reality by pushing for UCC. Most ordinary citizens fail to understand why Muslims resist something as laudable as UCC. As the debate grows, the ruling party hopes to benefit in the coming elections.

A set of codified Muslim family laws based on the Quran and conforming to constitutional principles of justice and equality would have prevented the situation from deteriorating into the present problem. It could not happen owing to politics in our secular democratic country. From Shah Bano in 1985 to the women-led movement against triple talaq in 2017, our political class has continued to fail Muslim women. Today a majoritarian government with a poor record on women’s equality is pushing for a common civil code. Remission to rapists of Bilkis Bano and scenes of police lathi-charging women wrestlers protesting sexual harassment by a ruling party MP are fresh images in our minds. And yet, UCC might be a Muslim woman’s only hope of justice. She must either support it or be prepared to bear the brunt of patriarchal practices forever.

Although a common civil law would impact all Indians, it appears as though it is opposed by mainly Muslims. Diverse practices in marriage and family are prevalent throughout India within various Hindu denominations. Tribes in different parts of the country, particularly the northeast, have customary laws and practices. Reconciling these would be a Herculean task for the Law Commission of India which has invited suggestions from the public towards a nationwide UCC.

UCC is mentioned as Article 44 of Directive Principles in our Constitution. It must be remembered that the goal is gender justice and not mindless uniformity. All discriminatory and unjust practices should be uniformly discarded in any gender-just code. Diverse gender identities beyond male-female binaries must be accepted in an inclusive code. Same-sex marriages must be legalised. Practices such as multiple wives and child marriages should go irrespective of religion and culture.

We see marriage as a holy cow institution where the husband is lord and master. Marital rape is a crime that needs to be punished suitably, as should honour killings and vigilantism over inter-faith or inter-caste marriages. Currently, sex amongst adolescents stands criminalised owing to the age of consent being raised to 18 years in POCSO. This needs to be revisited urgently. A common law already exists in the form of the Special Marriage Act, 1954. To begin with, the government must take special measures to popularise this law. Before doing this, the 30-day notice period requirement should be scrapped.

The responsibility to reach out to all segments of society lies with the government. There is a climate of hate against Muslims prevalent in the country today. The PM must win sabka vishwas by reassuring that UCC is a bonafide exercise. A message must go from him that hate crimes and hate speeches would not be tolerated. It is imperative to address the trust deficit before embarking on a serious exercise such as the UCC. Without these, it won’t be easy to shed the charges about the political agenda being furthered.

Societies globally have rapidly changed in the last three decades of the internet and other advancements. Indians are changing too. Although crimes against women continue, there is heightened awareness about gender equality. Indian Muslims, too, are ready for positive change. Several young women and men are speaking out for progress; the clergy is no more the sole spokesperson of the community. Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia and Malaysia are some Muslim countries with gender-just laws. India, too, can have reform. Although UCC cannot be the panacea for all deep-rooted ills of society, it can offer a new beginning—provided it is genuinely inclusive and affirmative, with justice and equality at the heart of the code.

Zakia Soman

Women’s rights activist

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