A Uniform Civil Code (UCC) refers to the formulation of one law for all citizens of a country, irrespective of their religion.

The proposal to implement UCC in India entails replacing the ‘personal laws’ based on an individual’s religion with the national ‘uniform’ code applicable to all citizens. The UCC is concerned with areas like marriage, inheritance, the succession of property, adoption, divorce and maintenance – and is separate from public law, which is already common for all.

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Currently, for instance, religions such as Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Parsis, have their own marriage and maintenance laws. The foundational idea behind a ‘uniform’ code, then, is to avoid ‘issues arising due to conflicts in various personal laws’, as per one of the rulings by the Delhi High Court on the matter.

The Indian Constitution speaks of the UCC as a Directive Principle of State Policy under Article 44, which states, “State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. A directive principle is not mandatorily enforceable, as per Article 37, which states, “The provisions contained in this Part (Part IV) shall not be enforceable by any court… and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws.”

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The debate regarding implementing UCC as a law has been as old as the history of the country itself. In fact, it predates independence, with the Lex Loci Report of October 1840 which stressed the importance of uniformity in the codification of Indian law, while clarifying that the personal laws of Hindus and Muslims must be kept outside of this codification. 

Similarly, the Queen’s 1859 Proclamation had vowed complete non-interference in religious matters. 

In this backdrop, personal laws continued to be governed by religion while criminal laws became common for all. 

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While independence leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr BR Ambedkar were in favour of a UCC, they faced immense pressure from religious fundamentalists, eventually forcing the constitution drafters to include it just as a directive principle and delaying its implementation till a more suitable and favourable time. 

Shah Bano Case

The debate was ignited again in the Shah Bano case in 1985. After being divorced by her husband through ‘triple talaq’ (form of divorced practiced in Islam), a 73-year-old woman named Shah Bano was denied maintenance. She approached the courts and the District Court and the High Court ruled in her favour. In response, her husband appealed to the Supreme Court citing Islamic law. The apex court ruled in her favour again under the ‘maintenance of wives, children and parents’ provision of Section 125 of the All India Criminal Code — common for all citizens regardless of their religion. 

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The court also recommended the setting up of a uniform civil code. 

The decision was opposed vehemently by Muslim groups and organisations, forcing the government to pass The Muslim Women’s (Right to protection on divorce) Act in 1986, making Section 125 inapplicable to Muslim women. 

The contentious law was reignited over the years in different cases such as the Daniel Latifi case, the Sarla Mudgal case, and the John Vallamattom case. 

Recent developments

In 2018, the Law Commission concluded that a Uniform Civil Code is neither feasible nor desirable. “Constitution itself has given so many exemptions to so many people like the tribals, etc. There are exemptions even in Civil Procedure Code and Criminal Procedure Code… UCC is not a solution and there cannot be a composite Act,” it had said in a report.

Last year in July, the Delhi High Court had said that the youth belonging to various communities, castes, or religions who solemnize their marriages “ought not be forced to struggle with issues” arising due to conflicts in various personal laws, according to a report by the Indian Express. 

The had court ruled that the modern Indian society was “gradually becoming homogenous” and “the traditional barriers of religion, community and caste are slowly dissipating.”

“The hope expressed in Article 44 of the Constitution that the state shall secure for its citizens Uniform Civil Code ought not to remain a mere hope. The Supreme Court had, in 1985 directed that the judgment in Ms. Jordon Diengdeh be placed before the Ministry of Law to take appropriate steps. However, more than three decades have passed since then and it is unclear as to what steps have been taken in this regard till date,” Justice Prathiba M. Singh had said in a judgment.

More recently, Puskhar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, said the government will work on getting a Uniform Civil Code in the state if the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) returns to power. He said a committee will be set up to prepare a draft for the Uniform Civil Code. “This Uniform Civil Code will provide for same laws regarding marriages, divorce, land-property and inheritance for all people, irrespective of their faith,” Dhami said.   

The Uniform Civil Code has been a legislative promise of the BJP for years now. It also featured in the party’s election manifesto in the run-up to the 2019 General Elections.