The proposal for the introduction of a uniform civil code (UCC) in the country has raised concerns among tribal and ethnic communities across India, with the leaders of many tribal bodies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradhesh, Jharkhand and elsewhere issuing statements in protest. Their fear is that the UCC will infringe on their customary laws and socio-cultural practices, which enjoy constitutional safeguards.
This piece focuses on north-eastern India where, apart from civil society organisations, even allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), which lead ruling coalitions in Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Nagaland, are in the forefront of the growing protests against the UCC.
In these three States, Scheduled Tribes constitute the majority in the population: 94.4 per cent in Mizoram, 86.1 per cent in Meghalaya, and 86.5 per cent in Nagaland. Additionally, these States and Arunachal Pradesh are dominated by Christian and other indigenous faith believers.
The opposition to the UCC has put the spotlight on Article 371A of the Constitution with respect to Nagaland, Article 371G with respect to Mizoram, and the provisions under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution with respect to Meghalaya, Mizoram, Assam, and Tripura.
Articles 371A, 371G, and the Sixth Schedule
Article 371A states that no Act of Parliament in respect of (i) religious or social practices of the Nagas, (ii) Naga customary law and procedure, (iii) administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, (iv) ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides. A similar provision is provided by Article 371G to Mizoram.
On February 14, the Mizoram Assembly unanimously passed an official resolution “to oppose any steps taken or proposed to be taken for enactment of UCC in India”. As president of the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), Chief Minister Zoramthanga, in his letter to the Law Commission, wrote: “The said Resolution was moved, discussed and thereafter unanimously adopted by the Mizoram State Legislative Assembly for the reasons that the UCC, if enacted, ‘would disintegrate the country as it was an attempt to terminate the religious or social practices, customary laws, culture and traditions of religious minorities, including Mizos’.”
Article 371G was inserted in the Constitution by the Constitution (53rd Amendment) Act, 1986, following the signing of the Memorandum of Settlement between the MNF and the Government of India on June 30, 1986. Mizoram became a full-fledged State on February 20, 1987, following this peace accord.
According to the MNF, the “implementation of UCC is not in the interest of the ethnic minorities of India in general and of the Mizos in particular”. Conveying its opposition to the Law Commission in a letter, the Mizoram Church Leader’s Committee (Mizoram Kohhran Hruaitute Committee (MKHC)) stated that the UCC is “undeniably undermining the rights and privileges of minority enshrined in Constitution Article 371(G)” and “could be an instrument of oppression and assimilation of the minority communities and religious bodies in our land”.
In a statement on July 3, signed by secretary Lalnilawma Colney and chairman Rev. Dr Chawnghmingliana, the MKHC said: “The MKHC by careful scanning of the content of UCC feels that UCC is detrimental to the unity in diversity of Indian culture, religions and customs which our forerunners have dearly held and cherished.”
Opposition in Nagaland
In Nagaland, the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), which is a constituent of the ruling coalition in the State that includes the BJP, expressed its firm opinion that “implementing the UCC will have a negative impact on the freedom and rights of the minority communities and the tribal people of India”.
The NDPP cautioned that the UCC is “bound to have significant consequences” on the ongoing Naga peace process, which, it said, was at a critical juncture after 26 years of negotiations. “Having endured a long period of turmoil and bloodshed, today the Nagas want the peace that has been in place since the negotiations began to become permanent. However, to introduce a new law that will have deep impact upon the personal laws of the people will instead create further uncertainty and has the serious potential to threaten the peaceful environment,” its statement says.
The Naga political party is of the view that “federalism is the basic structure of the Indian Constitution which should never be altered or destroyed; and the idea of India is based on tolerance, respect for all sections, and appreciation of all faiths”.
According to the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the UCC is “betraying the hope and trust of the minorities, especially the tribal communities for whom constitutional provisions like Article 371(A) or Sixth Schedule have been provided to protect and promote ‘our custom, values, and practices, things which have given us identity, worth, belongingness and purpose’.”
A statement by NPF Legislature Party leader Kuzholuzo (Azo) Nienu says: “The spirit of Indian nationalism or national integration cannot be achieved by questioning and insulting the wisdom and heritage of the minorities. In reality, it is the issues and questions of personal matters that constitute the heart and soul of modern democracy and liberty, for instance, religious freedom.”
“We are a matrilineal society. That is what our strength has been and that is what our culture has been. Now that cannot be changed.”Conrad SangmaChief Minister, Meghalaya
The Central Nagaland Tribes Council (CNTC) is the apex body for three major tribes in Nagaland, namely Ao, Sumi, and Lotha. In its representation to the Law Commission, the CNTC pointed out that the Consultation Paper on Reform of Family Law, brought out by the 21st Law Commission on August 31, 2018, had stated that “Article 371A contemplates a different treatment to the part of Nagaland in view of the difference between the needs of social conditions in Nagaland and various stages of development in different parts of the country”.
A letter to the Law Commission signed by its president Khondao Ngully and general secretary Captain G.K. Zhimomi says: “Different tribes in Nagaland have their own customs, culture and traditions that have been practices for centuries bounded by personal laws without any conflict with one another.” Imposing untested laws alien to the tribal communities will have serious repercussions, the CNTC warned. “Of late the pitch for ‘uniformity and conformity’ is creating deep insecurity particularly among the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities that inhabit different parts of the country.”
Naga Hoho, another apex civil society organisation in Nagaland, expressed fears that “imposing a uniform civil code without taking into account the unique cultural and historical context of the Nagas would be tantamount to erasing their identity and diluting their cherished traditions”.
- North-eastern India’s tribal and ethnic communities fear UCC will infringe on their customary laws and socio-cultural practices.
- Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Nagaland have seen opposition to the UCC from civil society groups and allies of the ruling coalitions.
- Article 371A, Article 371G, and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution provide special provisions for these States.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma stated that his National People’s Party (NPP) viewed the UCC as going against the idea of India itself. Stating that Meghalaya is a matrilineal society, the Chief Minister added: “That is what our strength has been and that is what our culture has been. Now that cannot be changed.”
The United Democratic Party (UDP), a constituent of the Sangma-led ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance supported by the BJP, wrote to the Law Commission that “the fact that our State falls under the purview of the Sixth Schedule, any infringement on the rights of the indigenous tribals will defeat the intent of this exercise”.
UDP general secretary Jemino Mawthoh further said that since there was no clarity on the matter, the party is “disinclined to support the proposed implementation of the uniform civil code”.
All three Autonomous District Councils under the Sixth Schedule in Meghalaya—the Khasi Hill Autonomous District Council, the Jaintia Hill District Autonomous Council, and the Garo Hill Autonomous District Council—have passed resolutions opposing the UCC at a joint meeting.
The Councils also demanded the exclusion of Sixth Schedule areas from the purview of the UCC, which was done when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was made. Assam and Mizoram have three autonomous district councils each, and Tripura has one under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule.