Uniform Civil Code
Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a set of proposed civil laws that would preside over personal matters such as marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance, for its citizens, irrespective of their religious background. Thus, UCC seeks to replace personal laws based on diverse religious and cultural dictums.
B.R. Ambedkar, the father of constitutional assembly, proposed that a “state that shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”, the provision, which also finds its place in the Indian Constitution (Art 44). For him, a common civil code would annihilate disparities and provide equal rights and opportunities to everyone, irrespective of their religious background. He viewed the UCC as a vital step towards breaking down caste-based hierarchies and promoting a cooperative and egalitarian society.
Although mentioned in the constitution as a part of Directive Principles of State Policy, despite 75 years of independence, the implementation of UCC remains contentious, igniting passionate discussions on platforms of politics, academia, and public discourse.
In the annals of India’s history, the concept of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) emerges as a profound thread that connects the country’s colonial legacy with its ardent struggle for independence. As the British East India Company sought to govern a diverse and intricate land, they recognized and codified personal laws based on religious beliefs, giving rise to a patchwork of legal practices. However, with the winds of change blowing fiercely during the independence movement, visionaries envisioned a secular and inclusive India, where the unity of the nation prevailed above all else. During the colonial era, personal law jurisdiction laid the foundation for a diverse legal landscape, where personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance were governed by religious customs. As the leaders of the independence movement dreamt of a new India, the concept of a UCC emerged as a pivotal instrument to foster national integration and uphold the ideals of equality before the law.
The debate for enactment
Various scholars, academicians, religious leaders and activists were convinced that the implementation of UCC could produce beneficial developments in the long run.
Firstly, the social fabric of India is woven with a diverse set of cultural and religious patterns brushed by the strokes of different norms, values, rituals and traditions. The adherents of UCC consider the distinct course of religion in matters of personal law creates disparities and inequalities among people. By adopting UCC, equality before law will prevail which will govern all citizens, regardless of their religious background, thus fostering a sense of equal treatment and fairness. As Prof. Tahir Mahmood aptly mentions, “The principle behind the Uniform Civil Code is that all citizens should be equal before the law, irrespective of their religious beliefs.”
Secondly, the innumerable identities have induced divisions within society resulting in identity conflicts, animosity and weakening of nations’ strength. Advocates of UCC profoundly believe that a common civil code can help bridge these gaps and create a stronger sense of unity and collective identity, fostering a more integrated and cohesive society. And could be essential for building a strong and resilient nation, enabling citizens to focus on common goals rather than dwelling on divisive issues.
Furthermore, a Uniform Civil Code can address gender inequalities prevalent in certain personal laws. Many existing personal laws have discriminatory provisions that affect women’s rights, including limited access to divorce, unequal inheritance rights, and restrictive custody arrangements. A uniform code will eliminate such discriminatory practices and provide women with equal rights and opportunities, contributing to gender justice and women empowerment.
Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, in this context states that the “Uniform Civil Code is essential to ensure gender justice and to eliminate discrimination against women entrenched in personal laws.”
While the UCC will bring in the benefits mentioned above, many have also contended that it would bring tides of detrimental consequences for India. The foundation of Indian society depends on the whole idea of “Indianness”, which gives prominence to diversity. If tinkered with, it would carry off the essence and spirit of India’s rich culture.
Critics argue that a UCC will undermine cultural and religious pluralism by imposing a uniform set of laws on all citizens, disregarding their unique customs and practices. As suggested by Justice B.S Law Commission of India in 2018, “cultural diversity cannot be compromised to the extent that our urge for uniformity itself becomes a reason for threat to the territorial integrity of the nation”.
Furthermore, the opponents of the UCC fear that it could disproportionately affect minority communities and their personal laws. There are also concerns that implementing a single civil code may infringe upon the rights of religious and cultural minorities, leading to possible marginalization. This was also highlighed by Asghar Ali Engineer, a social activist and scholar, who studied the concerns about potential imposition of a UCC on minority communities and its impact on religious freedom.
While proponents of the UCC argue that it would promote gender equality, critics contend that the existing personal laws already have provisions for addressing gender-related issues. They argue that the focus should be on effectively implementing and reforming these laws rather than imposing a uniform code.
UCC moots a broad spectrum of questionssuch as the the scope of uniformity, diversity, plurality, and equality. And although the debate over its enactment finds many sides from both ends, what remains a significant question is how the process of implementation will take place if there are many stakeholders at loggerheads.
Many eminent theorists state that the political environment is not conducive to discussion of UCC. Also, Articles 25-30 give citizens of India the Freedom of conscience and profession, practice, and propagation of religion,, There cannot be a conflict between fundamental rights and DPSP where the latter is not enforceable. Furthermore, any recommendation on the UCC should prioritize inclusivity, respect for diversity, and sensitivity towards the rights and traditions of all religious communities. It should aim to protect minority rights and uphold the principles of religious freedom while promoting equality and justice for all citizens. Additionally, it should take into account the unique historical, cultural, and social contexts of India, recognizing the importance of legal pluralism while also striving for a more uniform and just legal framework.
Any recommendation on UCC should be informed by the expertise of legal scholars and constitutional experts who can navigate the complexities of harmonizing different legal systems and ensure that it complies with the principles of the Indian Constitution.
Many prominent scholars remarked that UCC could be achieved if progressive reforms are brought within the personal laws rather than changing the personal laws totally. There needs to be a consensus, a collective approach or an amendment rather than a replacement. Any amendment must deal with roots first then branches, that is, altering personal laws within and comparing them with present-day rights and equality could bring a scope for executing a Unified civil code in the coming future.
Recognizing the complexities of the issue and the need for unity in diversity, Dr Harmony Singh, an eminent scholar and peacemaker, suggests a “Progressive Pluralistic Code” (PPC) instead of a traditional Uniform Civil Code. This approach emphasizes the importance of unity and harmony among diverse communities, encouraging them to find common ground while celebrating their unique identities. Through such steps, India could begin a new chapter of unity in diversity, celebrating its rich cultural heritage while embracing the principles of justice, equality, and respect for all.