Debate on Uniform Civil Code:
Divisive campaign under the garb of progressive reform

On 14th June, the 22nd Law Commission of India issued a Public Notice seeking views and ideas about a uniform civil code (UCC). It issued a deadline of 30 days to submit such views. Civil code refers to personal laws governing marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, and other family matters.

A few days later, speaking to booth level BJP workers in Madhya Pradesh, Prime Minister Modi called for the introduction of UCC. Referring to the existence of separate laws for different religious groups, he asked how the country can run with a “dual system”. He was presumably referring to the Hindu and Muslim family laws.

A debate has been initiated on the need for a uniform law, without specifying what that law should be. No draft of the proposed uniform civil code has been presented, on which views can be given.

At present, the people of our country are governed by numerous different personal or family laws based on different religious beliefs and diverse traditional customs. While the Prime Minister talked of a “dual system”, there are more than two different sets of family laws. There are separate laws which apply to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, numerous tribal peoples, etc. Certain tribal people follow a matrilineal system for property inheritance. There are also some common laws such as the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which provides a legal route to marriage for those who do not want any religious ceremony.

The religion based personal laws are all based on outdated ideas of male supremacy. They discriminate against women. These laws do not recognize men and women as equal partners with equal rights regarding divorce, adoption, guardianship and inheritance of property. Some of the common laws also have problems. For instance, the 30 day notice period after the notification of marriage under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, allows the possibility for family members of the couple to interfere and block the marriage.

Women of all religious faiths and from all regions of the country have been waging a protracted struggle for reforming the personal laws so as to end their discrimination. They have been demanding that the laws must recognise and protect the rights which belong to them, by virtue of being human beings and equal partners in marriage and the family. This struggle has enjoyed the support of all progressive forces. It has highlighted the need for substantial reforms in all the existing personal laws, including the religion specific laws as well as the laws common to all.

The circumstances in which the current debate on UCC has been initiated indicate that the motive is not to address the problem of discrimination against women.

Firstly, the central government is not making any reference to the recommendations of the 21st Law Commission. A paper it submitted in 2018 stated, “This Commission is of the view that it is discrimination and not difference which lies at the root of inequality. In order to address this inequality, the Commission has suggested a range of amendments to existing family laws … This Commission has therefore dealt with laws that are discriminatory rather than providing a uniform civil code which is neither necessary nor desirable at this stage.” The Central Government has offered no explanation as to why it has disregarded this view.

Secondly, the current call and campaign in favour of UCC is a step in the exact opposite direction to the recommendation of the 21st Law Commission. The BJP leaders, while advocating UCC, are making the existence of difference the main issue rather than the discrimination against women.

Thirdly, the 22nd Law Commission, which was notified on 21 February, 2020, remained without any members for most of its three-year tenure. Its chairperson assumed office only on 9 November, 2022, and its term has been extended until August 2024. The initiation of the debate on UCC by this body seems to be oriented towards the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Fourthly, when objections were raised by numerous organisations of tribal peoples, such as in the Northeast, the concerned central minister has responded by stating that these peoples can be excluded from the UCC.

The above-mentioned facts together show that the present campaign for a UCC is targeted specifically against Muslim personal laws, which are being depicted as backward and reactionary.

There is a long history of struggle against the discriminatory religion based personal laws in our country. It was the British rulers who codified in writing these separate religion-based family laws. They did so to keep Indians divided along communal lines and subject to backward customs.

The relentless struggle of women and all progressive forces for the recognition of equal rights for all women, compelled the Constituent Assembly to include, in the 1950 Constitution, a Uniform Civil Code as one of the “directive principles of state policy”. However, this has remained on paper, because the ruling bourgeois class has found it convenient to continue with the colonial methods of dividing and ruling over the masses of working people. It has used every kind of backwardness, including the inferior status of women, to intensify the exploitation and oppression of the toiling masses of people. The ruling class has promoted religious authorities as the guardians of the personal laws governing all the people.

The political parties of the bourgeoisie are not really interested in reforming personal laws to eliminate the discrimination against women. Those bourgeois parties which talk about the need for a uniform civil code do so only to incite anti-Muslim sentiments among Hindus. The reality is that both Muslim and Hindu women are victims of discrimination and oppression, as also the women of other religious faiths.

The struggle to reform laws which discriminate against women is part of the struggle to end all forms of exploitation and oppression in society. It needs to be waged with the perspective of establishing a State that recognizes and respects the rights which belong to all human beings, a State which carries out a consistent struggle against all ideas and customs that discriminate against women.

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