Why problems persist with the uniform civil code

Proposals for a UCC have been contentious for decades, devolving always around the sensitive relationship between freedom of religion and secularism

A couple exchange rings in presumably a marriage ceremony (one of them wears red and white chura bangles, typical of some Hindu communities) (photo: DW)
A couple exchange rings in presumably a marriage ceremony (one of them wears red and white chura bangles, typical of some Hindu communities) (photo: DW)


Last week, India's northern Uttarakhand state passed a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which seeks to replace religion-based personal laws governing things like marriage, divorce and co-habitation with a common set of rules that apply to all citizens equally.

In the South Asian country, personal laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance are rooted in religious scriptures and traditions. Major religious communities like Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs each adhere to their respective personal laws.

Political debate on creating common civil laws in India has gone on for decades.

And the nation's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now prioritizing making the UCC a reality, but it continues to remain a contentious and politically delicate issue.

Critics view it as an infringement on the religious freedom and identity of minority communities, especially Muslims.

Opponents of the BJP and the UCC argue that the code will be used to entrench policies favouring India's Hindu majority.

Civil code part of a larger social agenda?

Cynthia Stephen, a gender and development specialist who has studied the UCC closely, said overall, some version of the UCC will be implemented in other states governed by the BJP.

Besides Uttarakhand, two other BJP-ruled states, Gujarat and Assam, have also pushed for implementing the UCC.

This could affect the Muslim and Christian minority that have occasionally faced targeted violence, she said.

"The completely unconstitutional UCC will abrogate the freedom of worship and belief of vulnerable sections including women, Muslims, and Christians," she added.

But supporters of uniform personal laws for all citizens say they promote national integration. Many Muslim women also hope they would help their community leave archaic and patriarchal personal laws behind.

"It will be beneficial for Muslim women if there is uniformity, there will absolutely be gender justice with the Uniform Civil Code," constitutional expert Shireen Tabassum told DW last year.

"UCC is part of BJP's election manifesto but a collaborative approach involving all communities is called for. It cannot become yet another step against minorities," she added.

The introduction of the UCC is part of the ruling BJP's agenda, detractors say, especially after the controversial scrapping of the special constitutional status of Kashmir in 2019, and the contentious inauguration of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya last month.

"They are all part of a basket of communal measures introduced by the ruling party," Kavita Krishnan, a women's rights activist, told DW.

"Regulating gender and sexual relationships and subjecting them to patriarchal, caste and communal morality is central to the social and political goal of the BJP," she added. "I've no doubt at all that such laws will be front and center in a full-fledged Hindu nation, if the BJP is given the opportunity to build it."

Co-habitation must be registered

Under the UCC provisions in Uttarakhand, residents will have to register their live-in relationships or face imprisonment of up to three months and a fine amounting to 10,000 rupees (€112, $120).

The UCC requires the partners to notify the registrar within a month of entering a live-in relationship and after terminating it.

"There's an erosion of rights of the individual in the UCC. Women are up in arms as the draft law insists upon the registration of live-in relationships, supposedly to protect women. But this provision invades personal relationships and enables the policing of inter-religious couples," said Stephen, the gender and development expert.

"Far from protecting women, it endangers them by making them vulnerable to intrusive investigation of their personal relationships by any official and even just any communal group," she added.

Flavia Agnes, a women's rights lawyer, told DW that the co-habitation rules "transform the entire relationship from an informal one into one governed by a draconian and rigid criminal law."

"The entire purpose seems to be to dissuade young couples from entering into such relationships and control their sexuality, and raises questions about individual privacy and liberty," she added, warning that a register for live-in couples could be abused by authorities.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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