The Chief Minister of Uttarakhand has promised that if BJP comes to power again, the hill state will implement Uniform Civil Code. In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had sought votes on 3 major promises – the abolition of Article 370, the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya and the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code.
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Under the leadership of Vajpayee, the BJP formed a coalition of 13 parties and formed the government. Due to lack of majority and compulsions of coalition religion, BJP could not do much to fulfill its election promises. In 2014, the BJP got an absolute majority under the leadership of Narendra Modi. Even after this, the party could not do anything different on these issues in the first term.
The picture has changed after BJP got absolute majority for the second consecutive time in 2019. At the beginning of the second term, in August 2019, the Modi government abolished the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370. The court’s decision in favor of the temple in the Ayodhya dispute paved the way for the fulfillment of another big election promise of the BJP. In November 2019, the Supreme Court gave a verdict in favor of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. Now the main agenda of the BJP is the Uniform Civil Code, which is yet to be completed.
The controversy over the Uniform Civil Code is more than 70 years old. There was a long debate on this in the Constituent Assembly. Article 35 of the draft Constitution (which became Article 44 upon the adoption of the Constitution) said, ‘The State shall endeavor to secure for the citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India’.
Most of the Muslim representatives opposed it. His demand was that if nothing like this happens in this article, then it should affect the personal law for the citizens.
Naziruddin Ahmed, a well-known lawyer and member of the Muslim League from West Bengal, argued in the Constituent Assembly that the Muslim community was not ready for a uniform civil code. “During its 175 years of rule, the British government never interfered in personal law… I have no doubt that a time will come when civil laws will be uniform,” he said. But that time has not come yet… Our aim is to move towards Uniform Civil Code but it should be done gradually and with the consent of the people concerned.
The first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to codify Hindu Personal Law through the Hindu Code Bill 1955. Then the Hindu MPs opposed this proposal and asked – why only the personal law of Hindus is being interfered, why the personal law of Muslims or Christians is not being codified?
Then, on the objection of Hindu MPs, Nehru repeated the arguments of Naziruddin Ahmed, ‘The Muslim community is not ready yet.’ JB Kripalani reacted sharply to this. He took a jibe at Nehru by saying, ‘Hindu Mahasabha people are not the only communal ones. This government is also communal, whatever you want to call it. It is taking a communal step. I am accusing you of communalism because you are bringing a marriage law for Hindu community only. I am saying that the Muslim community is ready for this but you do not have the courage…if you want this (provisions for divorce) for the Hindu community, do it, but do it for the Catholic community also.
The Nehruvian hesitation about the Uniform Civil Code continued even further. Maulana kept on warning the governments openly. Sometimes that if you do this, then our religious sentiments will be hurt, sometimes that if you do not do this then religious feelings will be hurt.
For decades, the Supreme Court taunted the political class over the Uniform Civil Code. The governments just kept saying that the wish expressed by the framers of the Constitution in Article 44 would be achieved.
Three decades after the codification of the Hindu Personal Law, the Supreme Court gave a historic verdict in the Shah Bano Begum case. The court ruled under section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code that a divorced Muslim woman would also receive maintenance from her husband after the period of iddat, until she remarries.
The Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed to the pressure of Maulanas and Muslim fundamentalists. To reverse the Supreme Court’s decision, the government brought the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.
In the Daniel Latifi case in 2001, the Iqbal Bano case in 2007 and the Shabana Bano case in 2009, the Supreme Court has clearly held that Muslim women cannot be denied benefits under section 125.
In the Shah Bano case of 1985, the Supreme Court said, “By removing conflicting ideologies in personal law, a Uniform Civil Code will strengthen national integration.” In the 1995 Sarla Mudgal case, the Supreme Court observed, “Where there is already a Code on Personal Law for more than 80 per cent of the citizens, then there is no justification as to why there is no uniform civil code for all citizens of India.”
In John Vallamattom Case (2003), the Supreme Court insisted that the goals set out in Article 44 of the Constitution must be achieved. But seven decades after independence, the same old Nehruvian logic continues – the Muslim community is not ready.