India's plan for civil law covering all its religions branded an 'election stunt'

Hindu nationalist government says existing laws are discriminatory but activists fear its real aim is to sow mistrust between communities

Interior Minister Amit Shah, a supporter of the new code. AP
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Activists have called the Indian government's renewed plan to introduce a uniform civil law for all religious communities an “election stunt” designed to sow mistrust.

The officially secular country currently allows its religious communities to follow their scriptures and traditions on laws pertaining to marriages, divorces, property and adoption.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has long campaigned to bring in a common law for the entire nation to regulate civil matters, arguing the existing laws are discriminatory and stoke inequality.

Interior Minister Amit Shah, a close ally of Mr Modi, told a news channel on Thursday that his government was committed to bringing a Uniform Civil Code to replace religious practices, as laws based on religion are not “acceptable”.

“Our party is clear on this front,” he said. “There must be common law for people belonging to all faiths in the country. It has been part of our manifesto and we will fulfil it.”

John Dayal, an Indian human rights and Christian political activist, said that for decades the party had failed to show a draft of the code or justify the need for it. He also called it an election “stunt” to woo voters.

“Polygamy is banned in Christianity as that is the only point that the BJP has on Muslims, and the population increase,” he told The National.

“As a secular country, they can’t say the laws are against Muslims so they have included other religions … but even then, does the BJP not know that bigamy is more prevalent in the majority community?

“This is just an election stunt to rouse majority sentiment and browbeat Muslims. The government has absolutely no base on which it can bring the Universal Civil Code.”

Despite reservations from wide sections of the Indian public, three of the states ruled by Mr Shah's party — Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — have already begun implementing the controversial legal scheme ahead of elections this month and in December.

The plan is to expand it to other Indian states after the initial pilot, Mr Shah said.

He also said the government was willing to reach a consensus and seek the opinion of other political parties for the implementation of the law across India.

Controversial legislation

The proposal to bring in a UCC has for decades been a flashpoint in a religiously diverse but Hindu-majority nation.

Many right-wing Hindus have become increasingly vocal in recent years about bringing in new laws as a means to target the Muslim community, which they claim is using Islamic laws for polygamy and gender discrimination.

India’s 200-million Muslim community regulates marriage, divorce and property under India’s Sharia Act but has not codified or made any amendments to the religious practices. It accuses the ruling party of making it a target because of its religious beliefs.

Under Sharia, Muslim men are allowed to practice polygamy.

While there is no recent data available on polygamy, exhaustive government figures from 1960s found that such practices were more prevalent among India's tribal communities, Buddhists and Hindus than among Muslims.

Other minority religious communities such as Christians, whose laws are based on the Bible, have also opposed the law. So have dozens of tribal communities in remote north-east and central India, where more than 200 tribes have their own laws and customs.

But many right-wing Hindus argue that having separate laws for different communities is discriminatory and against the principle of equality under the constitution, as Hindus are the only group that has a codified law on matrimonial and property.

Updated: November 25, 2022, 6:03 PM