Modi’s push for a single personal law in India sparks renewed debate and disquiet

In India, matters of marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance fall under multiple religious and customary laws, only some of which are codified.

Nirmala Ganapathy

Nirmala Ganapathy

The Straits Times


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country cannot have separate laws for different groups of its people. PHOTO: REUTERS

July 7, 2023

NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi is moving forward with a highly contentious campaign promise to govern all Indian citizens under a single personal law, regardless of demographic.

In India, matters of marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance fall under multiple religious and customary laws, only some of which are codified. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Parsis, for instance, have their own rules, resulting in a complex system of laws, some of which have been criticised as patriarchal and backward.

The proposed Uniform Civil Code (UCC) seeks to replace this with a single set of common laws for everyone. In its nine years in power, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly promised its Hindu nationalist base it would enact the UCC. The proposal has been in the BJP’s election manifesto since 1996.

At a BJP event in Madhya Pradesh on June 29, Mr Modi said the country cannot have separate laws for different groups of its people.

Since mid-June, India’s Law Commission, which advises the government on legal reform and is putting together a report on the UCC, has been gathering public feedback on the new code. It has collected more than 1.9 million responses, say Indian media reports. The BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand, meanwhile, said last week it had prepared a draft of a UCC Bill for the state, but did not reveal its contents. The draft could serve as a template for the national government, according to reports.

These fresh moves have revived the debate over the UCC’s practicality and whether it will lead to a dilution of local customs and traditions in the multi-faith and multicultural country of 1.4 billion people. They have also raised questions on whether Mr Modi will implement the UCC ahead of national elections expected by May 2024, or keep it on the cards to entice voters as part of a campaign strategy to secure his third term in power.

Hindu nationalists have long demanded the UCC, contending that the Islamic personal law needs to be amended because of practices such as triple talaq, in which a man can divorce his wife by saying the word “talaq” (divorce) three times. The Supreme Court in 2017 ruled the practice unconstitutional, and it has been banned since 2019.

While specifics of the proposed law remain unknown, the BJP’s push has triggered disquiet among minorities and tribal communities.

The All India Shia Personal Law Board, which represents the rights of Shia Muslims, has called it “an attack on personal law”. Mr Conrad Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya, said the UCC would erode and have “a negative impact on the culture and way of life of the tribal people” in the north-eastern state.

The debate over a UCC dates back to India’s independence, when framers of the Constitution put in Article 44, which says “the state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. Successive governments have steered clear of the issue. In 2018, the Law Commission said a UCC was neither “necessary nor desirable”.

Mr A. Faizur Rahman, secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought, a reformist Muslim organisation, said there was no need for a UCC.

“All these years, no government has been able to produce a draft of the UCC or implement it. It goes to show it is not practical to enact such a code. Where the government needs to put its energy is in pushing for reforms in personal laws,” he said. “States have different cultures, religions, laws, languages and other diversities. How can all these diversities be uniformised?”

Laws on adoption showcase the complexities involved. Muslim, Christian and Parsi personal laws do not recognise adoption, unlike the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act. And the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000 allows adoption irrespective of religion. This is one of many differences among communities.

Sikhs, for instance, have no provision for divorce under the Anand Marriage Act that governs them. A Parsi woman who marries outside her community ceases to be a part of the Parsi community, according to the group’s personal law. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the south of India, a woman can marry a maternal uncle, even though the Hindu Marriage Act disallows it.

The BJP has framed the push for a UCC as a way to achieve parity between the sexes. In 2019, the party said it “believes that there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, which protects the rights of all women”.

Experts said there is little doubt that all personal laws must be reformed to give women equal standing, for example, in inheritance cases.

“Uniform Civil Code should be entirely voluntary. It should be a set of gender-just personal laws that cover everything from marriage and divorce to inheritance,” said lawyer Alok Prasanna Kumar, co-founder of the think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. He said “detailed consultations” were required.

“A UCC will sit alongside existing religious personal laws and customs without disturbing them,” he said. “Of course this should be accompanied by reforms in the specific religious personal laws without necessarily undoing the unique features of each law.”

He added: “The law should make it easier for women to claim maintenance, a share in their husbands’ assets, custody of children, and a fair share in inherited property. A voluntary UCC could also give India an opportunity to come up with a legal framework to include same-sex couples within the existing legal framework without having to fundamentally overturn existing religious personal laws in the process.”

Critics claim the UCC is part of a tactic to divide Hindus and Muslims.

Opposition parties have also been divided, with some politicians breaking ranks with party positions. The Aam Aadmi Party has in principle supported the UCC, but Mr Bhagwant Mann, the party’s chief minister in Punjab, a Sikh majority state, has spoken out against a uniform code.

Said journalist and political commentator Neerja Chowdhury: “It’s like opening a Pandora’s box. You don’t know how Hindus, too, will react. The political fallout could go in every direction. The question is, has the government thought it through?”

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