UNITY OR UNIFORMITY?
(Note: Another incisive and eloquently written article by Chhotebhai – this time on Uniform Civil Code (UCC) which has been making the national headlines along with our army's surgical strikes – Isaac Gomes).
School children wear uniforms, because they are vulnerable and impressionable; hence need a distinct identity and protection. However, when they grow into critically aware young adults entering college, they abandon their school uniforms. College campuses are a riot of colour, after the staid straight jackets of school kids.
Is our country a mosaic of many colours, and a bouquet of several fragrances? Or is it a “one size fits all” like the RSS uniform that has been altered slightly from half pants to full length ones?
There is much talk of Article 44 of the Constitution, that very matter of factly states in just one line that “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) throughout the territory of India”. This comes after other Directive Principles like equal pay for equal work, ownership and distribution of material resources, health of workers etc (Art 39). What we are not hearing in public debate is that these Directive Principles are not enforceable by any court (Art 37). Are they then just pious intentions? How then can a court adjudicate on the issue of triple talaq by seeking refuge in Article 44 aforesaid? We are also not being told that the Supreme Court has in Pannalal Bansilal Patil vs State of AP (AIR 1996 SC 1023) held that the implementation of the UCC “should not be counterproductive to the unity of the nation”.
By initial accounts one would dare to say that the proposed UCC is having more of a divisive than a unifying effect. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia. But is has remained relatively unscathed by Islamic radicalisation, precisely because we have respected unity in diversity, and allowed each community to evolve in its own way. Forcing the UCC down peoples’ throats would have the same effect as banning the burqa in France. It only added to the polarisation and radicalisation. Sometimes it is better to leave well enough alone.
I have studied the 16 point questionnaire published by Justice B.S. Chauhan, Chairman of the Law Commission of India this 7th October: giving just 45 days to respond. The questionnaire raises the issues of marriage, divorce, adoption, guardianship and custody of children, maintenance, succession and inheritance laws. It also has queries about triple talaq, polygamy, polyandry, women’s rights, social justice, waiting period of two years for a Christian divorce, inheritance rights for Hindu women, common grounds for divorce, compulsory registration of marriages, inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, and infringement of religious freedom.
Phew! That’s a long wish list, covering a vast swathe of the nation’s social fabric. Given that there are hundreds of languages and dialects in India, there is vast ethnic diversity from State to State, caste to caste, or of different tribes; are 45 days enough to address all these issues? The Law Commission would require at least a year to get feedback from the ground level up, and not just from a handful of mahants, mullahs, granthis and bishops. There are a plethora of existing laws for various communities. Can all these be wished away with one fell stroke of the UCC? Are we hyping up the UCC as a simplistic solution to all that ails us, just as we did a few years ago about the Lok Pal Bill that has since been consigned to the dustbin of history?
Christians have been the worst sufferers. Till a recent enactment in parliament, they were the only ones that had to spend a huge sum of money as per the provisions of the Transfer of Property Act, to probate a Will. Despite looking after the most orphans, they had no right to adopt, until a recent amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act. They were the only ones who had to go to the High Court for ratification of a decree of divorce under the Indian Divorce Act of 1869 (till an amendment in 2001). Again, ironically, the Catholic Church, in its Code of Canon Law states that it subjugates itself to “the competence of the civil authority in respect of the merely civil effects of marriage” (Can 1059). This is reflective of what the Lord Jesus himself earlier said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mat 22:21).
I would conclude with an option expressed in the last question of the questionnaire; that a codification of various personal laws would be better than trying to impose the UCC. After all we are adults that seek unity, and not children that need uniforms. We need reforms instead.
* The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union