India is home to a number of diverse cultures, religions and ethnicities- all guided by different beliefs, values and rules of conduct. An appropriate context to observe this in would be that of the personal laws, that are different for different religious communities in India, such as the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others. Personal laws refer to the guiding principles that govern areas like marriage, divorce, property inheritance, maintenance and other similar issues. Over the years, it has been observed that the different personal codes of various communities are not always harmonious with the concept of individual rights and freedoms and are sometimes even disparaging to the conditions of certain classes of people.
This is where the Uniform Civil Code (The UCC) comes in. A single set of laws governing all people, despite their religious, ethnic or racial differences is entailed under the proposal for a uniform code of governance. These laws will amalgamate all the different existing codes, resulting in fair, just and reasonable treatment for all- ensuring that justice prevails, even if certain belief systems are not conducive towards it. In the Shah Bano Begum case, for the first time, the Supreme Court of India upheld the section 127 and 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, regardless of the conditions prescribed by the Islam personal laws. In the instant case, a divorced woman claimed maintenance from her ex-husband, who denied payment on the grounds that his obligations as per his personal laws were extinguished as soon as the divorce was effected. Subsequently, the doors to examine the applicability of personal laws when they are contrary to individual rights, or in derogation of them were opened.
A uniform code, in this way, presents a multitude of benefits. It would promote unity, by emphasising on individual treatment and discourage divisions and disagreements based on religious differences. More importantly, it would create harmony, not just in the legal sphere, but also the communitarian one- truly establishing the rule of law. Along with this, a uniform code would make the legal system smoother- leaving little or no room for a miscarriage of justice, in the name of non-interference. Article 44 of the Indian Constitution, which calls upon the state to endeavour towards securing a uniform civil code throughout the country is the evidence of constitutional consensus around it. While the Directive Principles of State Policy, under which article 44 falls, are unenforceable in a court of law, they are guiding principles and milestones for governance.
A uniform code for civil governance would also promote the pillars of the Indian Constitution, and the basis for our democracy by facilitating secularism, social reforms and equality. Gender equality, one of the key struggles today, may also be tackled through such a reform. A landmark instance that enforced gender equality by quashing the applicability of personal laws is the case of Shayara Bano v. Union of India and Ors, more commonly known as the Triple Talaq case. In the instant case, the court quashed the validity of the practice of triple talaq, terming it as violative of the rights of Muslim women. This case is a significant effort, after the Shah Bano case, towards broadening horizons on the establishment of a uniform civil code.
However, as is always, the reform comes with its set of disadvantages; but do they outweigh the advantages? The major drawback, as pointed out, is the threat it may pose to preserving India’s diversity. Diversity here would act as both an opposition, as well as a hindrance. While a uniform code may seek to harmonise certain aspects of living among all communities, essential practices (both religious and non-religious) may be left untampered. The purpose of a uniform code is harmony, rather than unwarranted interference. Another severe drawback arising out of the implementation of the code would be the stirring of communal tensions- as people may come to believe that its implementation is a mark of ignorance, or lack of recognition given to religious customs and values. If not implemented carefully, and tactically, the reform might spur more discord than harmony. Finally, the reform, according to some, may be a host for government interference into individual rights, freedoms and liberty- all guaranteed by the Constitution itself. The implementation of the code in the union territory of Goa has shown some fruit, however, the demographic and the nature of the territory is far too different from the aggregate of the nation itself to draw an apt comparison.
It is imperative to note here that the debate on the uniform civil code is not new, and had the Constituent Assembly itself divided- resulting in its addition as a Directive Principle of State Policy, leaving it to the discretion of governments in the times to come- whether implementation has found its tide of time, or not. The uniform civil code, therefore, stands in a gray area, teaching a lesson that has been learnt numerous times already, perhaps- be it demonetization, or the GST: any social reform comes with its perks and downfalls; the key is execution, timing and tact, all of which will either bind the nation either for or against the reform.
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