Uttarakhand Uniform Civil Code: Testing the waters? 

While the government claims the UCC is a milestone for women’s rights, critics say it infringes upon personal freedoms, and targets minorities.

Published : Feb 19, 2024 22:18 IST - 7 MINS READ

BJP supporters celebrate after Uttarakhand passed the uniform civil code, in Dehradun on February 7, 2024.

BJP supporters celebrate after Uttarakhand passed the uniform civil code, in Dehradun on February 7, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Uttarakhand has become the first State in independent India to implement a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The move, coming two months ahead of the Lok Sabha election, is part of the Sangh Parivar’s ideological agenda, after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Although the much-touted UCC promises to champion women’s rights, experts are of the opinion that provisions such as the legal requirement of registering a live-in relationship do not safeguard women. Instead, they argue, these will stifle women’s freedom, turning them vulnerable to scrutiny by the state and vigilantes.

The Bill had met with opposition from women’s rights activists and opposition MLAs even as it was introduced. A joint statement released by women’s groups in the State demanded that the Bill be referred to a Standing Committee or Select Committee for deliberations.

It said: “While seemingly being uniform across religions, the Bill is actually criminalising and regulating constitutionally acceptable behaviours, like adult consenting cohabitation, called ‘live in’, reducing autonomy and choice, which the women in this country have attained through concerted efforts, inside the homes and on public platforms.”

What is shocking, the statement further says, is that this law applies even to those residents living outside the State. But their demands for wider discussions were ignored. The Bill was passed on February 7 by voice vote amid chants of “Jai Shri Ram” in the Assembly.

Also Read | Uniform Civil Code: History, implications, and minority perspectives

After the Bill was passed, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami claimed that the UCC would eradicate discrimination against women. He said the Uttarakhand Assembly had become the first legislature in independent India to pass a Bill that imposed common rules for all communities —except the Scheduled Tribes— on marriage, divorce, inheritances, and live-in relationships. He further stated that the UCC would ensure equality for all individuals without any bias in matters such as marriage, maintenance, inheritance, and divorce.

Dhami said the Bill would primarily address discrimination against women, serving as a crucial step towards eliminating injustices and wrongful acts perpetrated against them. “It is time to stop the atrocities against the ‘Matrishakti’... The discrimination against our sisters and daughters has to stop.... Half of the population should now get equal rights,” the Chief Minister said.

A first in India

Apparently, Uttarakhand is setting a precedent for BJP-ruled Assam and Gujarat, which are currently trying to implement the UCC in their respective States.

The Bill, based on a draft submitted by a committee formed by the Uttarakhand government under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court judge Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, was one of the BJP’s election promises during the 2022 Assembly election campaign in Uttarakhand.

What the opposition says

Opposition to the UCC has emerged from political parties as well. Bhuwan Chandra Kapri, Congress MLA from Khatima constituency in Uttarakhand, believes it is hypocritical of the BJP to project the UCC as a women’s rights issue when in reality, he claims, it infringes upon women’s rights and freedom.

“When the Supreme Court has validated live-in relationships, how can the State overwrite it by making it mandatory to register?” he asked. He said that maintaining a record regarding such relationships would pose difficulties for women. “Imagine the nightmare for women—records creating marital havoc, complaints flying from disgruntled relatives or snooping neighbours. An emboldened Bajrang Dal prying into your private life. Daughters facing marriage hurdles based on these very records. Blackmail, too, can become a weapon,” he said.

Kapri further said, “On the one hand, the BJP talks about Ram and tradition, and on the other, they are allowing live-in relationships if they are registered with the State. Why? Isn’t this hypocrisy? And what if the boy and girl living together are just friends, roommates, or colleagues sharing the rent?”

‘A Hindu Code’

The UCC has also come under attack for leaving the Scheduled Tribes (STs) out of its ambit and its targeting of Muslims. Asaduddin Owaisi, president of All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, believes that the UCC is nothing but a “Hindu Code”.

Speaking to Frontline, he said, “The UCC is not uniform. Firstly, the tribals are kept out of it. If the UCC is so beneficial for society, why should the STs be left out? Secondly, the UCC has not even mentioned the Hindu Undivided Family [HUF], which gives tax benefits to the Hindu community. Hindus and STs have been given exemptions, and the UCC cannot be uniform as long as it does not apply to the majority community.”

The UCC is intended to take away the religious practices relevant to Muslims, he further said. “It seems that the BJP thinks that this country has only one religion. They want to impose their so-called cultural values and religion on everyone, including the minorities,” he said, adding that the timing and intent behind the UCC are politically motivated.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami speaks during discussions on the Uniform Civil Code Uttarakhand 2024 Bill in the State Assembly, in Dehradun February 7

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami speaks during discussions on the Uniform Civil Code Uttarakhand 2024 Bill in the State Assembly, in Dehradun February 7 | Photo Credit: ANI

Critics have also accused the Uttarakhand government of using the new law to target Muslims who follow customary rules on polygamy and divorce under the Sharia law, which now stands banned. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading Muslim body, said: “We cannot accept any law that is against the Sharia because a Muslim can compromise with anything but Sharia and religion.”

Mohammad Shahzad, BSP MLA from Laksar constituency, said the Bill was passed in the Assembly without a detailed discussion because of the BJP’s brute majority in the House.

“The whole process of bringing this Bill was flawed. They first invited suggestions and then drafted the Bill. However, they should have prepared a draft first and then invited suggestions,” he told Frontline.

He questioned the government’s imposition of rules on Iddat, the cooling off period after the dissolution of marriage during which women cannot remarry, as required by the Sharia in Islam. “Muslim women observe Iddat at home. Those who want to do it, those who are religious, will still do it. They don’t need a permit to observe it. The UCC will not be able to interfere,” he said.

In the face of these vehement criticisms, questions are being raised about the motive of the UCC. Rajeev Lochan Shah, editor-in-chief of the local daily Nainital Samachar, believes that Dhami was brought in as Chief Minister purposefully because he was largely unknown by the masses, non-controversial, simple, and without any vision for the State.

In the 2022 Assembly elections in Uttarakhand, Dhami had lost to Kapri from Khatima in the 90-member Assembly. But the MLAs chose him as Chief Minister. “The BJP does not want anyone to challenge Modi, so they brought in Dhami. They want to continue with the Hindutva laboratory in the State, but without someone who can be a contender against Modi,” he told Frontline.

“There has been a sudden spike in fake news relating to love jehad in the past few years in the local news,” Shah further said. “Yet, there was no public demand for a legal requirement of registration of live-in relationships. Its introduction is purely political. The UCC does not address the basic problems that Uttrakhand faces. The BJP is using it as an experimental State to test the waters for a national level UCC,” he said.

Significantly, the 22nd Law Commission is examining the issue. A consultation paper by the 21st Law Commission had recommended a series of reforms in the personal laws of all religions while maintaining that the “formulation of a Uniform Civil Code is neither necessary nor desirable at this stage”.

Also Read | Uniform Civil Code: Another step towards making India a Hindu Rashtra?

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan told Frontline that a UCC, if drafted properly, is desirable, but in its current state it contradicts the Right to Privacy judgement of the Supreme Court in 2017, which holds that the right to privacy is protected as a fundamental right under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. The court stated that “personal information which has no relationship to any public activity or interest” or which would cause “unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual” is exempted from disclosure—unless the authority is “satisfied that the larger public interest justifies its disclosure”.

The constitutionality of the UCC is not in doubt since it is enshrined vide Article 44 in the Directive Principles of State Policy, he said. Bhushan believes that the UCC in its current form is meant to morally police Muslim residents. “The current UCC is an instrument of harassment given to the State police to harass citizens, particularly Muslims. A UCC that is liberal and consistent with public policy is desirable. It needs redrafting,” he said.

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