On October 12, Supreme Court observed that there was “total confusion” due to personal laws governing different religious practices. It asked the Centre whether it was willing to implement Uniform Civil Code in the country and sought a reply within three weeks.
The apex court’s observation must have come as a shot in the arm of the ruling BJP which leads the NDA government at the Centre. The rightwing BJP has always supported a uniform civil code in the country and has included in its election manifesto. This is one issue which sees the BJP on the same page as the Left, which too advocates a common code for ushering in emancipation of women.
Already facing allegations of acquiescing in or failing to rein in the fringe elements, in communal and controversial issues like ghar wapsi, beef ban, ban on cow slaughter and Dadri lynching, the BJP would perhaps have dragged its feet over implementation of the common code. It would not have initiated any move in that direction.
However, Supreme Court’s observation suits the BJP in more ways than one. It gives the ruling party an opportunity to fulfil at least one promise in its manifesto. It can also take shelter in Supreme Court’s directive and escape any blame for implementing it. The BJP can even expect to get support of the Left and women’s organisations in getting it implemented through Parliament. Unlike the Congress, the BJP may not have to worry about losing Muslim votes. On the contrary, it may hope to get votes of a section of Muslim women, who will be the biggest beneficiary of the common code. This will be an addition to the BJP’s kitty and the party may not be risked to be labeled as a “medieval” party.
The apex court’s observation could not have come at a more opportune time for the BJP. No wonder then, Union law minister DV Sadananda Gowda reiterated on October 13 that a common code was “necessary for national integration”. To give the decision a broad legitimacy, he said the issue warranted discussions with all stakeholders, including various personal law boards, to evolve consensus. He indicated that the process will take “some time”. The government has indicated that it will move slowly and gradually towards fulfilling a long-pending promise. The BJP will win accolades by implementing it, provided it is cautious enough not to make it a communal issue and its fringe elements do not indulge in chest-thumping.
Points to know about Uniform Civil Code:
1. What is Uniform Civil Code?
Uniform Civil Code is a part of Part IV of the Constitution which deals with Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP). The Directive Principles are discussed from Articles 36 to 51. Though DPSP’s implementation is not mandatory, it functions as a guide or a reference point to the Constitution-keepers. As Article 37 says, “The provisions contained in this Part shall not be enforceable by any court, but the principles therein laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws.” Article 44 states that “the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India”.
2. What does it deal with?
Uniform Civil Code is one of the most controversial issues enshrined in the Constitution. It deals with a proposal to have a common set of laws governing all citizens in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and maintenance without taking into consideration their religion. If implemented, it will do away with the existing personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community.
3. What’s the debate around it?
So far, Uniform Civil Code has evaded the country. It has acquired a political and religious dimension with the BJP and fringe Hindu organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporting it. The BJP has always included Uniform Civil Code, along with building of Ram temple in Ayodhya and abrogation of Article 370 of Constitution dealing with special status to Kashmir, in its election manifesto. On the other hand, the minorities, particularly Muslims, have vehemently opposed its implementation. They argue that India being a secular country guarantees its minorities the right to follow their own religion, culture and customs under Article 29 and 30. But implementing a uniform code will violate these rights.
4. What was the high point of Uniform Civil Code?
It shot to prominence in 1985 in the famous judgment of Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case. The 73-year-old Muslim woman sought maintenance from her husband on being divorced after 40 years of marriage under the Muslim Personal Law – by triple “Talaaq” and denial of regular maintenance. She won her case in a local court in 1980 and the Supreme court also gave the judgment in her favour in 1985 under the “maintenance of wives, children and parents” provision (Section 125) of the All India Criminal Code. The Shah Bano case became a major national political debate. Fearing the loss of Muslim votes, the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi supported a Bill in Parliament in 1986 to shield the personal law of Muslims. Despite vehement protests from the Hindu right, Left and women’s organisations, Parliament passed the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce), making Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code inapplicable to Muslim women. However, it dealt a huge blow to efforts of implementing Uniform Civil Code in the country.
~ Kumar Shakti Shekhar, Delhi-based journalist with more than 20 years of experience in reporting in media.