The 22nd Law Commission of India issued a notice last week asking public and religious organisations for their views on the suitability of a uniform civil code (“UCC”) to the Indian legal system. This is in the context of the Central Government’s submission before the Supreme Court in October 2022, claiming that the Law Commission would consider the issue of a UCC.
As the country debates the UCC, let us understand more about the UCC, its history and its applicability in this Weekly.
What is the UCC?
In India, the law on personal matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance, succession and adoption, referred to as personal laws, are derived from the respective religious rules and customs. Currently, people belonging to communities like Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis etc. follow different personal laws. There are also variations within these communities themselves based on customs and practices. Goa is the only exception, where there is a common law for family issues under the state list.
The UCC will replace these varying laws with a uniform code of law which will apply to all citizens in the above mentioned matters, irrespective of their religious identity. The idea of the UCC is enshrined in Article 44 of the Indian Constitution which says ,“the state shall endeavour to secure a Uniform Civil Code for the citizens throughout the territory of India.”
However, in the context of the multiplicity of religions in India and the nuances of different religious practices, the framers of the Constitution had felt that India as a country was not ready to abandon the diverse religious laws yet and the state must only strive towards its adoption when social acceptance of a common system of law in family matters becomes conducive to social and communal harmony.
Why is the UCC in the news again?
The issue of adoption of the UCC has been an ongoing debate. It resurfaced recently when the Supreme Court was hearing a bunch of petitions that sought reform of the family laws. In its response, the Centre endorsed the adoption of the UCC. It said that existence of different religious laws was “an affront to the nation’s unity”. This issue was then delegated to the Law Commission for its consideration.
The 21st Law Commission in its 2018 consultation paper, ‘Reform of Family Law’ said that UCC in India was “neither necessary nor desirable” at the stage of its consideration. It had supported the idea of reforms within the religious laws to make them gender just and to protect the religious and cultural diversity of India. However, its successor has re-initiated the conversation of this issue in light of some of the emerging questions of law before the Supreme Court of India. Led by notable jurists like Justice(s) Ritu Raj Awasthi and K T Sankaran as well as Professor(s) Anand Paliwal, D P Verma, Raka Arya and M Karunanithi, the 22nd Law Commission has solicited responses and perspectives from the India citizens, especially from public and recognised religious organisations on this topic.
How can we participate in this consultation?
The Law Commission has opened up the consultation to the views of any Indian citizen, including individuals and organisations. Issued on June 14, 2023, the Commission has urged those interested to submit their views to the Commission within 30 days, i.e., July 14, 2023. The submissions can be sent by post, or email or online on this link.
Is the UCC legally enforceable?
While the India Constitution does espouse the idea of a common law for all citizens, it must be highlighted that it is included under the Directive Principles of State Policy, which are not enforceable by the law and are only meant as directions for the state. On the other hand, the Right to Religious Freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution and is inviolable. Article 25 safeguards the right to practise, profess and propagate any religion and Article 29 confers the right to conserve any ‘distinct language, script or culture’ of any minority groups.
Therefore, the challenge before the Law Commission while deliberating upon the adoption of UCC, is to balance the interests of cultural and religious minorities against the need to amalgamate the religious laws in India.