Church leaders have called for a wide debate on a civil code which has always been a contentious issue politically. India has common civil law for all citizens except personal laws of various communities. Personal laws govern marriage, succession, divorce, and maintenance etc. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the dominant party in the ruling coalition right now, is in favour of implementing a Uniform Civil Code and had used the issue in a major way during the campaigning for the General Elections in 2014.
The BJP had then promised in its election manifesto to bring about a uniform civil code to ensure gender equality. However critics have said that the call for a uniform civil code being made by the RSS – BJP led Hindu right appears not to be a call for gender justice but to push the minority communities into a corner. BJP has often targeted minorities in India as part of this issue and the Hindu right firmly believes that only “homogeneity in law and uniformity can ensure national integration.”
The appeal of the Law Commission (http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/questionnaire.pdf ) comes the in the wake of the Modi Government asking the Commission in July 2016, to “examine” the issue of implementing the Uniform Civil Code for all citizens “in detail and submit a report”.
The appeal dated 7 October 2016, invites suggestions and public opinion on the “on the exercise of revision and reform of family laws,”. The objective behind the exercise, the Law Commission says, “is to address discrimination against vulnerable groups, and harmonize the various cultural practices.” The Commission has sought suggestions on all possible models and templates of a common civil code.
The appeal is accompanied by a 4 page questionnaire that seeks responses on polygamy, polyandry and other customary practices and asks whether these practices should be banned or regulated. The questionnaire also includes in its ambit the practice of triple talaq and asks whether it should be abolished in toto, retained, or retained with suitable amendments. It also enquires whether the two-year waiting period for finalising divorce violates Christian women’s right to equality.
The Church in India particularly the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI) had in July 2016, urged the Indian government to hold time-bound discussion with all religious groups in the country on the issue of the Uniform Civil Code.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Catholicos, president of the CBCI, said that such discussions should be held within the freedom of religious guaranteed by India’s constitution. “The unity of India should be impeccably safeguarded. All discussions on the uniform civil code must be done taking into account the diversity and freedom ensured by the constitution and without hurting the sentiments of the various religious groups,” he commented.
“It remains to be seen how the various sections including minority groups and the Hindu right will respond to the new appeal made by the Law Commission of India. The time period of 45 days appears too less to begin with. The Law Commission may be requested to extend the cut off date for submission,” says Rev. Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
“We have repeatedly asked the Government of the day to bring forth a draft of the Uniform Civil Code for the purposes of considered discussion but so far that has not happened.” He added.
Father Savarimuthu Sankar, spokesperson of the Delhi Archdiocese said in a statement, “The Law Commission has sent a set of questions, therefore it is a starting point where we need to start thinking about the reforming, because we always believe that a law is always made in a historical context, and therefore, laws that are 100-150 years old and need to be reformed according to the present day situation,”
Speaking to GCN, Dr. John Dayal, Spokesperson of the United Christian Forum and the Founder Secretary General of the All India Christian Council said, “We welcome the Law commission’s invitation to give our opinion on the Constitutional directive for a Common civil code. It is the first time such as initiative has been taken. We will participate in the process.”
“However there is still the need for a collective, overarching and holistic response to the government, which accepts divergence of views, but also wants a caveat that the discourse of the Common Civil Code is not used to target religious minority groups, or to evolve laws that may be injurious to rights enshrined in the Constitution.” He added.