Debating the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India: Striving for Uniformity or Embracing Diversity?

Debating the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India: Striving for Uniformity or Embracing Diversity?
Posted on 23-06-2023

Debating the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India: Striving for Uniformity or Embracing Diversity?

The 22nd Law Commission of India has initiated a process to gather public opinions and input from recognized religious organizations regarding the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The government has previously informed the Supreme Court that the Constitution of India mandates the implementation of a UCC for all citizens under Article 44.

The UCC aims to establish a single law applicable to all religious communities in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption. It seeks to replace the existing personal laws based on religious scriptures and customs with a uniform set of regulations applicable to all citizens.

Article 44, which falls under the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) in the Indian Constitution, urges the state to strive for a UCC throughout the country. While DPSPs are not enforceable by the courts, they serve as guiding principles for governance.

Presently, personal laws in India vary across religions, resulting in a complex legal framework. Different laws and customs govern Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and followers of other religions. Moreover, even within communities, there is further diversity. For example, the northeastern states have over 200 tribes with their own distinct customary laws. The state of Goa stands as an exception, where all religions follow a common law in matters of marriage, divorce, and adoption.

The 22nd Law Commission, headed by former Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, has undertaken a fresh examination of the UCC, taking into account the responses received by the previous 21st Law Commission. The 21st Law Commission had issued a consultation paper on the Reform of Family Law in 2018, prompting the need for a renewed deliberation on the subject.

The report produced by the 21st Law Commission, titled "Reform of Family Law," concluded that formulating a UCC is neither necessary nor desirable at this stage. It emphasized the importance of uniformity of rights rather than laws, stating that differences in laws do not necessarily indicate discrimination but rather reflect the diversity of a robust democracy. The report highlighted that many countries are moving towards recognizing differences instead of enforcing uniform legal provisions among culturally diverse populations. It argued that a UCC could be unfair to vulnerable sections of society and recommended reforming family laws from a gender justice perspective, ensuring women's freedom of faith without compromising their right to equality.

The recommendations made by the 21st Law Commission included abolishing the Hindu coparcenary system, codifying inheritance and succession laws, introducing no-fault divorce, addressing the issue of Muslim polygamy, and safeguarding the rights of persons with disabilities, among others.

However, the government has not taken any action on these recommendations in the five years since the 21st Law Commission submitted its report. The 22nd Law Commission was established in November of the previous year, and its term has been extended until August 31, 2024.

Supporters of the UCC argue that personal laws based on religion have hindered national unity and that a UCC is necessary for gender justice, as women's rights are often limited under religious laws. They contend that matters such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce are not inherently religious activities and therefore regulating them would not infringe on the religious freedom guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution. They also invoke the vision of the Constitution makers who aimed to enact a UCC in the future, promoting a set of civil laws that apply to all citizens regardless of religion.

Opponents of the UCC argue that its implementation would overlook the diversity of Indian cultures, customs, languages, and religious ideologies. They assert that principles of marriage, divorce, and polygamy are intertwined with the religious and cultural rights of Muslims. In the northeastern states, customary laws and procedures recognized under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution reflect the local society's diversity, posing practical challenges in formulating and implementing a UCC. The perception of UCC as encroaching on religious freedom is also gaining traction, with concerns about its potential impact on communal harmony in India.

It remains to be seen whether the 22nd Law Commission will find sufficient grounds to counter the reasoning of its predecessor and declare the UCC both desirable and necessary.

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