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Issue Brief No.10

Uniform Civil Code: The Importance of an Inclusive and Voluntary Approach

The call for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has long featured on the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and found mention in its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The issue is not new either for the BJP or for Indian politics: it has been at the centre – and sidelines – of political and legislative debates for well over a century and a half. The BJP was the first party in the country to promise the implementation of UCC if it were to be elected into power. Now that it holds the reins of power, it may be a matter of days before the subject leapfrogs from the cycle of debates to actual law. The urgency seems unavoidable given the ruling party’s recent history with regard to the revocation of Article 370, rendering all forms of talaq to be void, in the context of the talaq-i-biddat, and the determination it has shown towards the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Keeping in mind the right wing political narrative dominant in the country, the recent pronouncements made in political quarters as well as by the Supreme Court, C.K. Mathew, who was Chief Secretary of Rajasthan before retiring from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), traces the trajectory of the UCC debate, linking it to the contentious evolution of the Hindu Code Bill, and other key developments since independence, such as the Shah Bano case. He draws also attention to international experiences from Rome, France, and the UK and other countries, including the Islamic nations.

Mathew accepts that UCC has been a long-pending matter and also that it is arguably a necessary push in the direction of equity and freedom, especially with regard to gender. And yet he advises caution in applying it to a diverse people with varying degrees of religious sensibilities. The way forward, he says, is not to force it on an unwilling people but to follow the middle path of voluntary adoption, as once suggested by the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India and the country’s first Law Minister, B.R. Ambedkar:

“It is perfectly possible that the future parliament may make a provision by way of making a beginning that the Code shall apply only to those who make a declaration that they are prepared to be bound by it, so that in the initial stage the application of the Code may be purely voluntary .” [Emphasis by author.]

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