Understanding Uniform Civil Code (UCC) beyond 4 wives and 3 talaqs

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Whenever I mention anything about any aspect of personal laws or their reforms, whether in my blog or in conversations, I am confronted with questions regarding Uniform Civil Code. It is as if unless you have an opinion on Uniform Civil code, you are not entitled to talk on any other aspects of personal laws!

It always surprises me as to why so many people are so concerned about the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) as if UCC is the panacea for all our social ills! I for one have never found UCC important enough a subject in the social context of India.

Generally, there are two streams of supporters for UCC

First stream consists of atheists and liberals who want India to adopt uniform personal laws that are based on internationally accepted universal principles, for all its citizens, irrespective of their religion, caste, creed or tribe. They base their argument on the need to protect all our citizens from injustices bestowed upon them by factors like religion, caste etc. Universal but alien rules are their demand and these are mostly based on western concept of human rights and personal laws. In other words, this view is similar to saying that let us adopt English as the sole language for India so that there is uniformity among all its citizens. We will discuss later as to why such a view is not practical in India.

The other stream consists of people who are otherwise holding strong views on religious matters; to be more specific, the proponents of Hindutva! They can be spotted from their eagerness to quote the ‘right to marry 4 women’ and the ‘right to easy divorce by uttering the word ‘talaq’ for 3 times’, available to Muslim men, as examples for the injustice that justifies adoption of UCC. Talk a little further and most likely you will find the hate of other religions than any genuine wish for uniformity in civil laws as the reason for their vehement support for UCC. In other words, for them UCC is a mere tool to beat the minorities with (more often than not for narrow political purposes)!

What is Uniform Civil Code?

Let us see what this Uniform Civil Code is all about. UCC generally refers to that part of law which deals with family affairs of an individual and denotes uniform law for all citizens, irrespective of his/her religion, caste or tribe.

Laws relating to crime and punishment are uniform for all citizens. So are the laws relating to commerce, contracts and other economic affairs. Procedural laws including laws relating evidence etc are also uniform for everyone. Laws of taxation are same for all except that it recognises certain religious customs prevalent in the society, like Hindu Undivided Family (HUF), for special treatment.

However, family affairs such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, guardianship and adoption are legally permitted to be governed by customs or rules applicable to the persons and their community. This has been the practise from the time of British rule (even before that), because it was considered prudent not to disturb the people’s religious and community customs as far as their private affairs are concerned. The same position continued even after the independence and people were permitted to follow their respective personal laws.

Over the period, there have been attempts to codify personal laws applicable to each religious group. The codified personal laws relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance are mainly:
  • The Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 (applicable to whole of India except areas of erstwhile Travancore- Cochin, Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir),
  • Anand Marriage Act, 1909 (For Sikh marriages),
  • Cochin Christian Civil Marriage Act of 1920 (applicable for Travancore-Cochin areas),
  • Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 (making Shariat laws applicable to Indian Muslims),
  • The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1937
  • Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (applicable to not merely Hindus, Buddhists and Jains but also to any person who is not a Muslim,
  • Christian, Parsi or Jew, and who is not governed by any other law),
Hindu Marriage Act (the latest and covering most of the population) itself provides for exemptions to certain clauses where custom or usage governing each of the parties so permits. For example, the legality of marriages involving cousins prevalent in certain groups of Hindus belonging to South India is protected by this exemption. Similarly, the Act itself is exempted for people who are governed by any other law. Courts have recognised certain Tribal customs as ‘other laws’ thereby exempting the members of certain tribes from applicability of the Hindu Marriage Act. In other words, even Hindu Marriage Act is not uniform for all Hindus/persons covered by the Act.

While Indian Parliament has enacted a secular law for marriages (The Special Marriage Act, 1954) that provides a system of marriage irrespective of the religion or faith followed by either party to the marriage, the number of marriages that occurs under this system is still negligible. Most of the proponents of UCC must ask themselves as to why they are not adopting this uniform law of marriage, for themselves or their families, and then they will get the answer as to why India did not adopt UCC!

UCC is definitely not about forcing the customs of majority onto minority!

Written by Jayasankar Ambadi >>

Jayasankar is a Lawyer by education, and has worked in various organizations heading their Legal and Compliance functions. Currently based in Kerala, Jayasankar is involved in research and advisory assignments. He has served in the Indian Air Force, and did his LLB from Panjab University, Chandigarh, Masters in Business Law from NLSIU, Bangalore, and Masters in Business Administration from IGNOU. A keen observer of political and social issues, he tweets @jay_ambadi

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Indian Exponent: Understanding Uniform Civil Code (UCC) beyond 4 wives and 3 talaqs
Understanding Uniform Civil Code (UCC) beyond 4 wives and 3 talaqs
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