India, being a diverse nation, is home to many religions, each with its distinct personal laws governing marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance and succession. It would be accurate to say that the absence of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has only served to perpetuate inequalities and inconsistencies in our land of rich diversity. In fact, this has been a hindrance in the nation’s progress towards social harmony, economic and gender justice. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had last week called for the enactment of a UCC, pointing out the anomaly of having varying laws for different categories of citizens.
In the Constituent Assembly
The debate on the UCC goes back to the Constituent Assembly debates. In fact, one could assert that the legality of UCC is rooted in the Constitution of India, Constituent Assembly debates and also Supreme Court of India judgments. Constituent Assembly debates shed light on the need and the objective behind promoting a common civil code. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, had made a strong case in the Constituent Assembly for framing a UCC. He stressed the importance of a UCC in ensuring gender equality and eradicating prevailing social evils.
Countering the arguments of some of the members of the Constituent Assembly who were opposed to the idea, B.R. Ambedkar observed: “I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field. After all, what are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is so full of inequities, so full of inequalities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights. It is, therefore, quite impossible for anybody to conceive that the personal law shall be excluded from the jurisdiction of the State.”
Other distinguished and erudite members of the Constituent Assembly such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and K.M. Munshi also advocated the enactment of a UCC. Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar argued that “the Article actually aims at amity....what it aims at is to try to arrive at a common measure of agreement in regard to these matters”. Similarly, K.M. Munshi also called for a UCC in the Constituent Assembly. He said: “The point however, is this, whether we are going to consolidate and unify our personal law in such a way that the way of life of the whole country may in course of time be unified and secular… What have these things got to do with religion I really fail to understand.”
Since a consensus on a UCC could not be reached in the Constituent Assembly, the subject found a place under Article 44 of the Directive Principles. Thus, Article 44, in a sense, is the Constitutional mandate which requires the state to enact a UCC that applies to all citizens cutting across faiths, practices and personal laws.
It would be also pertinent to point out here that the Supreme Court had dwelt on the matter on more than one occasion. The top court had observed in the Shah Bano case that “It is a matter of regret that Article 44 has remained a dead letter.” The Court had pointed out that a UCC would help the cause of national integration. The top court ruled that “… in the constitutional order of priorities, the right to religious freedom is to be exercised in a manner consonant with the vision underlying the provisions of Part III (Fundamental Rights)” — Indian Young Lawyers Association case (2018). However, despite articulating its views clearly on the subject in many cases, the Supreme Court refrained from issuing any clear directive to the government being mindful of the fact that the framing of laws falls within the exclusive domain of Parliament.
The UCC is, therefore, a step in the right direction, long overdue, to safeguard the fundamental rights of all citizens and reduce social inequalities and gender discrimination.
It should be seen and understood as an attempt at creating a unified legal framework that upholds the principles enshrined in the Constitution and reaffirmed by Supreme Court judgments.
The doubts in the minds of some and the opposition to this initiative stemming from unfounded apprehensions need to be addressed through enlightened debate and constructive engagement. The overarching objective is to ensure that there is no gender discrimination, everyone enjoys the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, and that the law of the land is uniform for every citizen in our country. It will serve as a powerful instrument for the promotion of equality and justice for all citizens. Seen in this light, every citizen should welcome it.
As Babasaheb Ambedkar and other learned members of the Constituent Assembly had proposed, uniformity in personal laws is essential for empowering women and ensuring gender equality in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. A UCC would eliminate discriminatory practices that deprive women of their rights and provide them with equal opportunities and protections. Our diverse society calls for a unified legal framework to foster social cohesion and national integration. The Constituent Assembly members recognised the existing challenges and stressed the need for a UCC to bridge the gaps and promote a sense of unity among diverse communities.
Personal laws should have a two-dimensional acceptance — they should be constitutionally compliant and consistent with the norms of gender equality and the right to live with dignity. The Constitution is the North Star which guides us in this regard. It exemplifies the essential principles of justice, gender equality, and secularism which, taken together, set the foundation of the UCC.
Finally, I would like to urge my fellow citizens, leaders of religious groups and political parties to rise above all differences and support implementation of the UCC. They should contribute to making it an instrument of social reform, a legislative framework fully aligned with principles of justice and equity underscored by the Constitution, a code that provides legal protection against discrimination, a progressive piece of legislation to guarantee equal human rights and give tangible shape to the vision of the country’s illustrious founding fathers. It will be a yet another step, a very significant one, towards building a new, inclusive, egalitarian India that we all want.
M. Venkaiah Naidu is a former Vice President of India