The Supreme Court nudge on Monday to the central government, asking it to take a quick decision on the uniform civil code, is in accordance with the Constitution’s Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 44).
So far, the BJP is the only major party that has made a demand for this. But there are other sides to the issue. When the Constitution came into force, separate electorates were done away with in pursuance of the goal of equality among all Indians.
However, the Constitution has enough safeguards for the protection of religious and linguistic minorities and their religious and cultural rights. Keeping that in view, successive governments steered clear of this sensitive subject.
The matter does not concern the largest minority, the Muslims, alone. There are other communities that have their own civil laws and customs such as those relating to marriage, divorce, succession, adoption and maintenance.
This has a long history. Ever since large parts of what is now India (and Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar) came under the rubric ‘British Indian Empire’, the new rulers were content with establishing an administrative structure and legislative institutions while carefully leaving civil-religious practices, apart from cases like ‘Sati’, of various faiths aside. This policy served the colonial rulers well in the sense that they could exploit the differences between communities and keep them apart. After Independence, there had been fitful talk of establishing a uniform civil code.
But the matter received the nation’s serious attention when the Supreme Court in 1985 ordered the payment of alimony to a divorced Muslim woman on a petition filed by her. This led to an outcry from the Islamic orthodoxy, leading to the enactment of the Muslim Women’s Bill, which protected the rights of divorce. But, over the past 20 years or more, there have been several court judgments favouring the payment of alimony to Muslim women, the latest of which was in April 2015, when the Supreme Court said divorced Muslim women were within their rights to get maintenance from their former husbands under the Criminal Procedure Code, which gave the same facility to children and parents also. Similarly, last year the Delhi High Court had rejected a Muslim man’s plea that he could not be forced to pay maintenance to his former wife under the domestic violence law on the grounds that it did not apply to the Muslims.
After the Supreme Court’s prodding, the government is duty-bound to act on it. But the issue is politically fraught. Hence the first step for the government should be to begin discussions with people of all shades of opinion on the subject. Already there are advocacy groups of various religious communities that are rooting for a uniform civil code.