June 15, 2024

From left, Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru, Vice President of India's Interim Government, Earl Mountbatten, Viceroy of India and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, President of the Muslim League discuss Britain's plan for India at the historic India Conference in New Delhi, June 2, 1947. (AP Photo/Max Desfor)

Moon Desk: Ten months before India votes for its next government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reignited a long-simmering campaign to create a single law governing civil relationships between citizens in a diverse country where the idea of uniformity is deeply contentious.

Although criminal laws are the same for all, different communities – the majority Hindus (966 million), the country’s Muslim (213 million) and Christian (26 million) minorities, and tribal communities (104 million) – follow their own civil laws, influenced by religious texts and cultural mores.

Modi has in recent weeks personally pushed for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) that, in theory, would replace this maze of personal laws with a common set of rules for marriage, divorce, succession, adoption, guardianship and partition of land and assets.

Proponents of a UCC argue, as Modi did in a June speech to party workers, that a modern nation has no need for “dual laws” and that a common civil code would be a step towards eliminating gender discrimination in personal laws. The BJP has, in particular, described Muslim personal laws in India as biased against women, though activists insist gender prejudice exists across civil rules followed by most communities. A UCC, its supporters insist, would also help in national integration.

But the Modi government has not yet released a draft of what a UCC might look like. Opposition parties have accused it of using the idea as a political tool to paint minorities as regressive ahead of the 2024 vote.

Religious minorities and tribal communities fear that a uniform code would rob them of their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and culture by imposing a state-determined set of dos and don’ts. These concerns are grounded in the religious and ethnic divisions that have torn India since Modi came to power in 2014, with the mainstreaming of Hindu majoritarianism leading to increased attacks on minorities – especially Muslims.

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