The debate around the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has once again come to the fore, with minority religious organizations, political parties, and women’s rights groups having expressed their opposition to the proposed introduction of the code. It is being reported that the Twenty-Second Law Commission has received close to forty-six lakh submissions following its notification that sought opinions of “the public at large and recognized religious organizations about the Uniform Civil Code”. This is in spite of the preceding Law Commission’s observation that such a consultation pertaining to the Uniform Civil Code is not only untimely but also undesirable at the present juncture.
The 2018 Law Commission suggested that amendments in family laws of various religions are preferable over a national code insensitive towards pluralities and differences straddling communities existing across diverse regions. It aptly noted that legal reforms addressing gender inequalities present in personal laws must aim at resolving the inequalities among men and women of the same community rather than seeking to establish ‘equality between communities’.
The question of UCC and the women’s movement
The perspective held by women’s organizations over the question of the Uniform Civil Code has undergone a dramatic change over time. As early as 1937, the women’s movement demanded the implementation of UCC to combat gender discrimination. From the 1960s, and more emphatically from the 1980s onwards, the women’s movement regarded the introduction of UCC as crucial to deal with gender inequalities. The discontent over UCC was felt within the feminist movement by the turn of the century, as activists opined that UCC was a ploy to impose a majoritarian Hindu law over the rest of the country.
In the last two decades, wishing to delink themselves from the vested agendas of Hindu nationalistic parties and to make their activism more intersectional, women’s organizations have backtracked from the earlier demand. Their focus has shifted from championing the notion of gender equality resting on Article 44 to cultivating a nuanced understanding of personal laws. Now they deliberate upon how personal laws detrimental to the goal of a gender-just society can be modified or challenged without completely eliminating them for the sake of a limited understanding of secularism. Feminist groups have come to argue that personal laws of all religions tend to contradict the constitutional provision of the right to equality and are not an exceptional feature of Muslim personal law. Thus, they counter the narratives that portray Muslim personal law as archaic and barbaric.
Consider, for instance, the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act that prohibits married Hindu women from adopting children, or the Indian Succession Act of 1925, which denied Christian women from staking claims over their deceased son’s property. The debate over UCC once again resurfaced in mainstream media when the Supreme Court outlawed the practice of ‘Triple Talaq’ that allowed Muslim men to dissolve their marriage by uttering ‘talaq’ three times.
The landmark ‘Shah Bano case’ illustrates how the demand for a uniform civil code coalesced around the discourse of saving Muslim women from the clutches of religious orthodoxy. The sixty-eight-year-old had approached the court because her husband, Mohd. Ahmad Khan, a lawyer, refused to provide maintenance to the mother of five, later even divorcing her. In this case, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict in favor of Shah Bano upholding Section 125 b of the Criminal Procedure Code that forced Khan to provide alimony to her. Shah Bano’s case caught immense national attention, drawing in a spectrum of responses from religious clergy, women’s organizations, and the state.
The dominant position within the contemporary women’s movement appears to be oriented toward legal pluralism. Feminist activists today contend that engaging with the delicate terrain of personal laws is a more productive way of dealing with gender-unjust attitudes plaguing our communities. Reform of personal laws is viewed as being more feasible than the imposition of a uniform code.
The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has vehemently condemned the proposal for the enactment of UCC. In a letter addressed to the Law Commission, the organisation states, ‘We strongly feel that the UCC is merely an attempt to undo the existing Muslim Law and laws which come under the Sixth Schedule pertaining to the tribal areas. In keeping with democratic norms, this can only be done after extensive discussions with the communities involved.’
The implementation of UCC was one of the promises mentioned in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. Flavia Agnes has argued that the ideas of gender equality, national integration, and modernity are deployed to push the demand for UCC’s implementation. Agnes has held the media accountable for framing the matter of UCC within a communally charged rhetoric. The feminist legal scholar recently commented that the Law Commission’s exercise is steered towards ‘politically motivated’ ends and will only further facilitate the persecution of Indian Muslims.
The 22nd Law Commission’s notification calling for public opinion, at first look, appears innocuous. However, this is nothing short of neutralizing the heavily communalized context against which the demand for a Uniform Civil Code had been summoned, time and again. It is important to remember that adherence to Article 44 was clamored for by Hindu nationalists who grow paranoid over the terrifying imagery of a Muslim population that multiplied, supposedly due to the lack of any state control over their extraordinary reproductive vitality.
It also bodes well to remember that Shah Bano, whose legal battle was wrought by the intrusion of media and politics into the case, eventually renounced her share of maintenance– citing that she did not wish to bypass the law of faith. A dispute over the right to maintenance that nullified the contradiction between personal law and constitutional law had become a raging national issue, counterposing Muslim women against the Muslim community.
In an opinion piece presented in 1996, the ‘Working Group on Women’s Rights’ critiqued the nationalistic underpinnings of the UCC. The ‘Working Group’ consisted of a cohort of notable activists and scholars, including the now- incarcerated Gautam Navlekha, Tanika Sarkar, Urvasi Butalia, and Zoya Hasan, among others. The group remarked it is ‘disconcerting’ that courts invoke UCC only while dealing with cases related to Muslim personal law, and seldom in cases pertaining to Hindu personal law. They offered an alternate proposal– “a major reversal of present situation where all citizens are governed by personal laws unless they make a decision to opt for secular laws” – that is, all those who are born as citizens of India would be governed by a set of ‘common laws’, and if they prefer to, they can subject themselves to the purview of ‘personal laws’. As impossible as this option sounds, what we need today more than ever is to orient ourselves to such secular and explosive imaginations of democracy.
The Twenty-Second Law Commission has amassed over forty lakh submissions in a brief window of time between June 15th to July 15th. One can only wait and watch whether an exercise carried out within such a short duration over a historically contested issue, such as the UCC, will provide an impetus for initiating drastic legal reforms and consequently elicit polarising responses from an already fractured body politic.
Sandra Joseph completed her post-graduation from South Asian University, New Delhi. Her research interests broadly include the Sociology of Religion and Labor Studies.