India’s northern state of Uttarakhand on Wednesday passed a law that will replace religion and community-specific laws with a uniform code, sparking concerns that the ruling Hindu nationalist party is engaging in majoritarianism.
India, a diverse and multi-faith nation of 1.4 billion people, allows its religious and other ethnic communities to follow their scriptures and traditions for marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has campaigned for decades to implement what will be known as the Uniform Civil Code, saying the prevailing personal laws are discriminatory and promote gender inequality.
The BJP's objective is to introduce a common law throughout the country.
Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand – a state governed by the BJP – tabled the draft bill for the UCC for the state on Tuesday, calling it historic.
The Uttarakhand government will send it to the state governor for approval.
After getting consent from the governor, Uttarakhand will become the first Indian state to have a uniform law to regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
The law would replace the personal laws with common laws that would be applied to all religious groups, including Muslims, its largest minority group.
“I want to thank the people of Uttarakhand and Prime Minister Modi, because with their guidance, we were able to pass a Bill that will work towards providing justice to everyone and lead everyone towards equality,” Mr Dhami said after the law was passed.
The law envisages banning polygamy and consanguine marriages – prevalent among some Muslims – and criminalises Islamic practices such as halala, iddat, and forms of Islamic divorce.
Iddat is the 130-day period in which a woman must not remarry, to remove all ambiguity about paternity should pregnancy have occurred after the death of her husband or after a divorce.
Nikah halala – which was effectively outlawed by India in 2019 – is a process in which a woman must marry another man and then divorce him to remarry her first husband in the case of a triple talaq, or instant divorce.
The law allows all communities to marry according to their religious beliefs but has fixed minimum ages for marriage for men and women, at 21 and 18 respectively. It also makes it an offence for couples to fail to register their marriage with the government.
However, the law excludes tribal communities, who constitute about 3 per cent of the state's 12 million population and have a significant rate of polygamy and polyandry.
It further sets the criteria for divorce only if couples share identical reasons and justifications and makes provisions that the registers or documents about marriage or divorce be open for public inspection.
The BJP has praised Mr Dhami for introducing the law, with party representative Nalin Kohli calling it the fulfilment of the “promises made by our [BJP] ancestors”.
However, the proposed legislation has drawn intense criticism from rival political parties, religious groups and legal experts who say that the law is intended to intrude into personal relationships while imposing Hindu majoritarianism ahead of the national elections.
Sanjay Hegde, senior advocate at the Supreme Court, said that the law raises questions about the government’s interference in religious beliefs but overall is an application of the laws of the majority to others, ”notwithstanding religious beliefs or conscience”.
“This law is a set of killjoy provisions being pushed through as majoritarian consensus,” Mr Hegde told The National.
“This law would increase the sense of state interference in personal lives and homogenise the law in a manner that the mores and morality of the majority will prevail.”
Mr Hegde said that through the legislation, Mr Modi’s party was attempting to impose Hindu civil practices on other faiths, particularly on Muslims.
Several regional governments from Mr Modi's party have expressed their intent to replicate the laws in their states amid a growing clamour for bringing a similar law at federal level.
India’s approximately 220 million Muslims have increasingly come under pressure since Mr Modi came to power in 2014. Right-wing Hindu nationalists have openly targeted Muslims and campaigned against their religious practices, such as wearing a hijab, in an officially secular nation.
Mr Modi's party and other Hindu groups have openly denounced Muslim practices of divorce and polygamy – equally widespread among Hindus – and criticised Islamic laws.
Muslim religious leaders denounced the legislation, calling it a direct attack on their religious practices that overlooks the beliefs of about 14 per cent of the state’s population.
"The Muslim community has been completely ignored,” said Mufti Raees Kashmi, state president of Uttarakhand Imam Organisation.
The Hindu-majority state has witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in recent months, including the demolition of Muslim shrines driven by Islamophobic hardline Hindu crowds.
“The state is now encroaching on the Quran and Sharia,” Mr Kashmi said.
Critics say the Mr Modi's BJP is manipulating the issue ahead of the national elections this year to appeal to Hindu nationalist voters.
India's main opposition Congress party in the state slammed the government over rushing through the legislation while its central leadership accused Mr Modi’s government of creating distractions before the upcoming elections.
“New trivial issues will be unleashed till the time of elections so that there is no discussion on issues like unemployment, inflation, economic disparity and agriculture,” Supriya Shirnate of Congress said.