Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is moving ahead with plans to replace religion and community-based social practices with a uniform civil law, raising an outcry among minority rights activists and opposition leaders.
India's population of 1.4 billion comprises diverse religious and ethnic communities who are currently allowed to follow their own scriptures and traditions in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
But Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party wants to introduce a uniform civil code that will apply the same rules to all citizens. The Prime Minister made a strong pitch for the change last month as he launched the party's campaign for a general election next year that could give him a third consecutive term.
The BJP has campaigned for such a law for decades, saying that some of the prevailing personal laws are discriminatory and promote gender inequality. It says a uniform civil code would help to enforce a minimum age for marriage, abolish bigamy and polygamy, streamline property rights for women and resolve issues around interfaith marriages.
The Law Commission of India, a body under the Law Ministry that advises the government on legal reforms, last month invited public opinion and suggestions on the uniform civil code, in what is seen as a first step towards introducing a bill to make it universal.
The political opposition sees Mr Modi’s calls for the law as a move to galvanise the core voter base of his right-wing Hindu nationalist party, while representatives of religious and indigenous communities say it will be at odds with constitutional protections for the practise of religion.
Interference in marriage, divorce, property
Critics say the proposed law is aimed specifically at Muslims, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, follow Islamic law to administer marriage, divorce and property matters.
“In Islam, religious texts talk about marriage, divorce and distribution of property. Our apprehension is that Muslims will be denied the right to practice customs based on the Quran,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim member of parliament.
Hardline Hindu groups and top BJP members have in the past criticised the practice of polygamy among Muslims and claimed that Islamic law is regressive and misogynistic.
“Pluralism and secularism are part of the basic constitution. This is what makes India great, but their agenda is to turn India into a Hindu-majoritarian country,” Mr Owaisi said.
While advocating the uniform code, Mr Modi claimed that it was prescribed by India's constitution.
Legal experts, however, say that it is mentioned in Article 44 only as a “directive” to secure for citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India, with no specific time frame.
“It is when the people are ready for it, not when the government is,” said Saumya Uma, a professor at Jindal Global Law School and head of its Centre fro Women's Rights.
“There are many diverse communities including tribal communities that are given constitutional protection for their customary law. UCC cannot be implemented in violation of their constitutionally guaranteed protections.”
There are about 700 tribes with a combined population of 110 million in India, with each one practising unique social customs and traditions.
Many of the more than 220 ethnic groups living in the north-east have constitutional protections that allow them to freely practise their traditions and culture. In the state of Meghalaya, tribal communities follow a matrilineal system in which women head the household, and wealth and property is passed down from mothers to daughters.
Angela Rangad, a Meghalaya-based rights activist, said that while no one knows exactly what the government is proposing, a centric approach to personal law would encroach upon tribal customs and make minorities “jittery”.
“UCC is a dog-whistle issue that is raked up by the Hindu right every time an election is around the corner. It is dangerous and insidious,” Ms Rangad told The National.
“Meghalaya has a multi-ethnic, multi-religious tribal indigenous population that has matrilineage as a central organising principle. A move like this will cause disruptions.”
In the eastern states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where between one third and a quarter of the population are indigenous peoples, the proposed common code has raised fears about the loss of land rights.
Tribal lands are controlled and protected under law and cannot be transferred to people outside the tribe, even through succession or marriage outside the community.
“With UCC, the land and property laws will be changed. If so, wouldn’t it change our demography?” asked Rakesh Kiro, an activist with Jharkhand Indigenous People’s Forum.
“A daughter in our tribe doesn't have the right to her father’s property unless she is unmarried or there is no male heir. Women have a right to their husband’s property. Will that be changed? If so, non-tribals marrying our daughters can get land.”
Although not yet specified, a uniform civil code could also affect the unique customs of other minority religious communities such as Christians, Sikhs and Zoroastrians.
John Dayal, a human rights and Christian political activist, cited the example of the common practice among Dalit Christians, members of the lowest caste in Hinduism who converted to Christianity, of marriage between first cousins – an idea widely abhorred by Hindus.
In the southern state of Kerala, the Knanaya Catholics can expel anyone who marries someone from outside their community.
“It will explode in their face if they bring this code. The supporters don’t understand the implications, because in this code, everyone is a minority community who follows their customs,” Mr Dayal told The National.