Among the issues hanging fire for the last 75 years, through several shades and ideologies of governments at the Centre, is the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). It got an airing every now and then in the first few decades after independence but gathered political momentum in the 1990s when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) included it as a key campaign point in the Vajpayee-Advani era. It, not unsurprisingly, found a place in the party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election forming the third of the triad of issues after the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and abrogation of Article 370. Now that both these are done with, the BJP Government at the Centre was expected to rake up the UCC issue.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s reference earlier this week should, therefore, be seen as part of the larger plan to bring the issue to the foreground as the party prepares for the next round of state Assembly elections and eventually the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Shah predictably relied on the constitutional support that his party has repeatedly cited – Article 44 which states that “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. What he cleverly and cunningly left out was that the Article comes under the Directive Principles, which means it should be read as a guideline and not mandatory obligation on the State. The party and the government, however, will ratchet it up in the coming months repeating the constitutional basis.
The core idea of the UCC – a common civil law governing marriage, divorce, adoption, succession and inheritance – to replace the present system, in which personal laws of communities are governed by their religion, seems at odds with Article 25 which gives Indians the right to practise their religion besides other things. There has been expected and consistent opposition to the UCC from the minorities, especially the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) which seeks to be the voice of Muslims. There cannot be an opposition to making any law in favour of gender justice and removing discrimination against women, but this is only a thin cover for the BJP’s agenda to erase the identities of minorities and subsume them under the larger Indian identity. Shah’s reference to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which he warned would be implemented soon, is also part of this larger agenda to subdue Muslims.
A genuinely secular civil law that does not hurt any community or tribe is an idea whose time has come but this cannot be the cover under which the BJP fulfils its majoritarian agenda.