Uniform Civil Code: The debate rages on

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 24, 2016 10:19 hrs
Triple Talaq

The debate on the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has once again emerged. In response to a case filed by Shayara Bano from Uttarakhand asking for practices like triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala to be declared as unconstitutional, the Central Government submitted a petition to the Supreme Court favouring a relook at the personal laws. News18 accessed a copy of the letter and reported -

In a 28-page letter to the Supreme Court, which is its response to the affidavit submitted by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), the government said it was time that personal laws are relooked in the light of gender justice & dignity of women. The triple talaq is against Constitutional morality and needed to be abolished to reaffirm the principle of non-discrimination, dignity & equality

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has stuck to its position that such matters are not within the purview of the judiciary and even stated that during marital discord, it’s better for a man to divorce his wife, rather than resorting to ‘criminal ways to get rid of her.’

In this detailed facebook post, Arun Jaitely clarified that the government’s opposition was at present only to triple talaq, but the Law Commission will undertake an academic exercise which will involve detailed consultations on the civil code.

Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Government had brought about major reforms to the Hindu Personal Laws through legislative changes. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s Government brought further legislative changes with regard to gender equality in the Hindu Undivided Family. Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Government, after active consultations with stakeholders, amended the provisions of marriage and divorce relating to the Christian community in order to bring about the gender equality. Reforming the personal laws, even if there is no uniformity, is an ongoing process. With passage of time, several provisions became obsolete, archaic and even got rusted. Governments, legislatures and communities have to respond to the need for a change.

The UCC has always been a contentious issue. Maneesh Chibber’s article in The Indian Express highlights important conversations that took place in the Constituent Assembly in 1938 where several muslim and hindu leaders raised questions about the Uniform Civil Code, which was then Article 44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which declared that all states would endeavour to secure for citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India. There was definitely a fear even then that minority communities would lose their religious freedom. B.Pocker Sahib Bahadur asked –

I know there are great differences in the law of inheritance and various other matters between the various sections of the Hindu community. Is this Assembly going to set aside all these differences and make them uniform? By uniform, I ask, what do you mean and which particular law, of which community are you going to take as the standard.

Nevertheless, there has been widespread opposition to the government’s present move, which is largely being seen as a hindutva assertion. Aakar Patel writes in the Asian Age that the government’s opposition to triple talaq and polygamy have ulterior motives. It is felt that polygamy is the instrument through which Muslims reproduce faster than Hindus and at some point will become a majority. The incidence of polygamy is actually higher among Hindus than Muslims according to the data, but the perception is powerful enough to drive this demand for the Uniform Civil Code.

He also says that while majority of muslim women are opposed to polygamy, almost the same number of women live in monogamous marriages. Patel also calls for views of those within polygamous marriages to be taken into consideration.

Alok Prasanna Kumar also raises an important point in his article in Scroll. Kumar says that the BJP’s move has been to target only muslim practices and there the entire exercise is not being carried out in good faith.

The Uniform Civil Code is a dog-whistle that the BJP uses to consolidate its Hindu base and alienate and demonise Muslims. If the BJP were acting in good faith about a genuinely gender-equal and easy-to-use uniform civil code, we would have seen a proposal from the government arguing why coparcenery rights of all Hindus should be abolished and therefore, the Hindu Undivided Family provisions in the Income Tax Act, 1961 should stand repealed.

All India Muslim Personal Law Board has criticised the decision of the Centre and has called for a boycott of the Law Commission’s questionnaire on the issue. One of the AIMPLB has been quoted by Catch News as saying -

With Ram Mandir and other issues having failed, this is a dangerous move to polarise the society just before assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. It was also a tactic to divert people's attentions from other pressing issues like price rise and unemployment.

A signature campaign has also been initiated with three main points.

1.We are fully satisfied with the commands of Islamic laws, especially on Islamic orders related to Nikah, Talaq (divorce), Khula (woman's right to seek a divorce), Faskh (dissolution) and Wiraasat (heritage). We are fully satisfied with and strongly deny the possibility of any type of change in them.

2. The Constitution of India has provided complete freedom for followers of all faiths to practice their religion. We, therefore, do not accept common civil code in any form.

3. We are with Muslim Personal Law Board to save and protect Shariat Laws.

Although agreeing the questionnaire is loaded in favour of the UCC. Asaduddin Owaisi of MIM has said that his party will reply.

The Times of India reported that Owaisi called on the government to look into more pressing issues like banning alcohol consumption which kills thousands of people.

Owaisi claimed that it is "convenient" for the Centre to "turn around the debate" and say that only Muslims should be reformed. "They completely and deliberately not understand that this country has different cultures. Religions have different cultures which must be celebrated. You cannot impose one culture or language on this country," he said.

The Communist Party of India – Marxist has come out in favour of the ban on triple talaq but has also said that personal laws of the majority community also needs to be relooked

The Quint summarises the stand of several parties on the issue. The Congress feels that the UCC is untenable.

Congress leader Veerappa Moily said it would be difficult to implement UCC in a country like India where various communities and groups are governed by personal laws."In a country of this nature, implementation of Uniform Civil Code is next to impossible," he said, adding that no one should take it as a communal agenda or a ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ issue.

Leaders of the Trinamool Congress also held a protest opposing the government’s move. According to the Hindustan Times, one of the confidantes of TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Noor-ur-Rahman Bakarti has said - We will speak to the chief minister on this issue. She has always upheld the rights of the minorities not only in Bengal, but also in the country, in tune with the tradition of secularism in the state.

There are others who feel differently, particularly muslim women.

The New Indian Express editorial talks about the triple talaq as an abhorrent practice which has not been banned in many countries, including Pakistan.

In India this is one law which is grossly misused. Most of the cases that family courts hear are related to triple talaq. Studies have shown that an overwhelming majority of Muslim women find the practice worthy of being consigned to the dustbin.

While many muslim women’s organisations welcome the government’s stand on triple talaq, they oppose the UCC. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan’s Noorjehan Safia Niaz said that their demand has always remained codification of the Sharia on the basis of Qur’anic texts and the Constitutional values of equality and justice.

She went on to say that both the government and AIMPLB were diverting the issue.

The government and AIMPLB are addressing their own constituencies by sticking to the UCC narrative. For AIMPLB, any insistence on imposition of UCC is welcome because it allows them to create a scare among Muslims about the government’s intention. It also gives them the license to accuse people like us of furthering the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) agenda of implementing UCC when what we have actually been demanding is codification.

The fact is that the women’s voices are being drowned out in this debate on the UCC. Many do not see uniformity as equality. Despite decades of debates and conflict around it, Alok Prasanna Kumar rightly points out

No one seems to have a clear conception of what such a code would actually look like.Perhaps, the UCC should be compared to Lewis Carroll’s (1950) fabled Snark — no one knows what it looks like or what it is supposed to do.

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