Uniform Civil Code: After 46 years of marriage, out of which for 32 years she had lived with another wife of her husband, Ahmed Khan, a lawyer from Indore, divorced Shah Bano, who was 62 years old and had five children. After running from court to court, finally in 1985, the Supreme Court of India ordered Khan to pay monthly maintenance to Bano, which was, however, overturned by the Rajiv Gandhi government, owing to Muslim personal law.
The next name is Shayara Bano. Married to Rizwan Ahmed in 2001, she endured everything from domestic violence to physical torture. Just like any other woman, she had been enduring all the pain until 2015, when the final cut came in. Her husband had sent her a divorce note by speed post, while both her children were kept by her husband.
Bano thought there must be a law in the country that could stop this injustice being done to her. To her surprise, the personal law didn’t come to her support, and this Shayara Bano became a crusader in the fight against Triple Talaq, which was later criminalised by the Modi government.
These scars would not have been on independent India if our politicians, who claimed to have shaped modern India, had actually foreseen the future. Catholic practises relating to marriage, adultery, and divorce wouldn’t have been a cause of agitation in Kerala and other south Indian states that have a sizeable Christian population.
The UCC and the debate around it
The Uniform Civil Code has been a hot topic of debate in modern times. The debate on the Uniform Civil Code can be divided into three parts: the British colonial era; the Nehruvian/Congress era; and the BJP era.
While India was being ruled by the British, who hail themselves to have brought the concept of ‘modern society’ to India. However, the British, following what they were here for, money, focused on just two subjects: “crime when done against the crown” and all the focus laid on “revenue”.
For this, they codified the Indian Penal Code, 1860; the Indian Evidence Act, 1872; the Indian Contract Act, 1872; and the Specific Relief Act, 1877. In the field of personal law, which includes marriage, inheritance, divorce, maintenance, and guardianship, the British left the matter for the religious heads to decide, as then began the menace of personal laws.
After India’s independence, Hindu personal law was done away with Hindu Code Bills, while the majority of the rest were left to be discriminated against by religious laws.
What politicians thought about uniform national civil code?
While we discuss such issues imbibed deep in religious practises and belief systems, we can have different opinions on the debates that took place during the drafting of the constitution. We can disagree on many opinions of BR Ambedkar concerning Hindu religion.
However, Ambedkar defended the state’s endeavour to put in place a uniform civil code. All that he could achieve is an article of the Directive Principle of State Policy. I am talking about Article 44 that states, “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”
Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, avoided the subject as if it held no importance in modern independent India. Probably, Nehru was preparing the ground for “vote bank politics”. Nehru opined that the Muslims were not ready for reforms at that point in time and that the right time for a Uniform Civil Code had not arrived yet. This preferential treatment in the Nehruvian era of letting one community be governed by their personal laws while stripping the other of the same is the antithesis of secularism, which they claim to be champions of.
In the Sarla Mudgal Judgement, even the Supreme Court of India expressed its disappointment over Nehru for not bringing in the Uniform Civil Code.
The UCC and the BJP
The Uniform Civil Code and the Bhartiya Janata Party have a long relationship to trace. The enactment of a Uniform Civil Code has been on the BJP’s agenda for a long time now, the other two being the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370.
The issues that the BJP was once recognised with, before the party name became synonymous with development. The UCC was a key poll plank of the BJP under Atal Vihari Vajpayee during the 1998 elections. The BJP even included the implementation of the UCC in its election manifesto for the general elections.
Recall the election rallies of 2014, the new BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to accomplish what their predecessors could not for various reasons. The Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 and bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir as soon as they bounced back to power in 2019.
The construction of Ram Mandir will be completed very soon. Now, with the two boxes ticked, the BJP has turned its focus towards the third box, that is, UCC, and thanks to the BJP chief ministers, they have already touched the right cord. Be it in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh, the BJP chief ministers have remarked on the need for the implementation of UCC.
Gujarat takes the Himachal route
The Uniform Civil Code under Article 44 was lying unimplemented as a ‘dead letter’ for the last 70 years when BJP Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami announced the implementation of UCC on the last day of the poll campaign, if voted back to power.
The Himalayan state, where a hung assembly was being predicted, gave a clear-cut mandate to Dhami and the BJP, thus accepting the implementation of UCC with open hearts. With the formation of the government, it formed an expert committee to examine ways for the implementation of the UCC, headed by retired justice Ranjana Prakash Desai. The panel is currently busy seeking public input for the same.
The election dates for the Gujarat assembly elections can be announced by the Election Commission any time soon. At such a crucial juncture, the BJP government in the state has said it plans to introduce a uniform civil code. The Gujarat government has proposed a committee led by a retired High Court judge—along the lines of the one in BJP-ruled Uttarakhand—to examine how such legislation can be implemented. This was announced after the state cabinet met and authorised CM Bhupendra Patel to appoint the committee.
What does the move signify?
UCC has been a contentious issue for a long time now, and the champions of secularism and equality have been campaigning against it rigorously. Although UCC has been a long time promise of the BJP, the party doesn’t believe in autocratic governance or the imposition of decisions.
This is the reason why the BJP has given the decision-making power to the people. This way, the opposition does not get an opportunity to malign UCC with terms like “fascist,” “conservative,” or “anti-minority” and question its requirements.
The BJP CMs, or state units with the nod of the central power structure and party high command, have given people an opportunity to vote for UCC, with UCC being a poll issue. This signifies how the people of India themselves understand the need for UCC and its benefits.
Take the case of Uttarkhand. CM Pushkar Singh Dhami promised, Janta voted for it, Dhami was re-elected and he fulfilled his promise of the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code. The same can be seen in poll-bound Gujarat as well. When you bring a long-standing issue to coincide with elections, you leave it for the people to choose. This is indeed setting the tone for the general elections of 2024. So what would happen? Will Prime Minister Modi contest with the promise of implementing UCC in 2024, or will he fulfil his UCC promise in the 2019 election manifesto and then be re-elected?
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