The Law Commission’s decision to solicit views from the public on the idea of a uniform civil code appears to be a political initiative aimed at bringing the potentially divisive issue under focus in the run-up to next year’s general election. The Commission, the 22nd such panel, has claimed that years have elapsed since similar views were sought by the previous panel, and that a fresh effort was needed to garner varied opinions. The 21st Commission had released a consultation paper in 2018 that categorically said a uniform civil code was “neither necessary nor desirable” at that stage. In a well-reasoned document, it had then argued that the focus of initiatives to reform the various personal laws should be the elimination of all forms of discrimination rather than an attempt to bring about uniformity in the laws governing various religions. The document was progressive in nature, inasmuch as it emphasised non-discrimination over uniformity, and recognised that there could be diverse means of governing aspects of personal law such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption instead of imposing a single set of rules on society. This would entail the removal of discriminatory provisions, especially those that affect women, and adoption of some overarching norms rooted in equality. Nothing significant has happened since to warrant a fresh look, except perhaps a political need for the current dispensation to bring the issue to the electoral arena.
A uniform civil code for the entire country is indeed a lofty goal, but the question whether introducing one for all aspects of personal law would impinge on the freedom of religion has been part of the debate. B.R. Ambedkar viewed it as desirable, but favoured its being voluntary. It is possible that a uniform code may be adopted without offending any religion, but the concept evokes fear among sections of the minorities that their religious beliefs, seen as the source of their personal laws, may be undermined. In fraught times such as the present, a common code will inevitably be seen as an imposition by the majority. Basic reforms can be given priority — such as having 18 as the marriageable age for all across communities and genders. Introducing a ‘no-fault’ divorce procedure and allowing dissolution of marriage on the ground of irretrievable breakdown, and having common norms for post-divorce division of assets were other matters the previous Commission threw up for a debate. Within each community’s laws, it will be desirable to first incorporate universal principles of equality and non-discrimination and eliminate practices based on taboos and stereotypes.