An Interfaith Perspective on Uniform Civil Code

An Interfaith Perspective on Uniform Civil Code
Uniform Civil Code

By Dr. A. K. Merchant* :

Out of 193 member states of the United Nations only 8 countries have a Uniform Civil Code—the United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and Ireland. All these countries have one set of personal laws for all religions and there are no separate laws for any particular religion or community. Additionally, some countries like France, Germany, and Japan have aspects of uniformity in their civil codes that apply to all citizens, regardless of their religion or beliefs. In India before the recent legislation in Uttrakhand, only Goa had Uniform Civil Code which was implement by Portuguese in 1867 and continued after 1961.

Mentioned in the Constitution of India as Article 44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy, framers of the Constitution had proposed that the adoption of Uniform Civil Code would replace personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community with a common set governing every citizen. The subject is not new it has been hotly debated in the Parliament with respect to the Shah Bano case in 1985 at which time the Supreme Court regretted that article 44 of the Constitution of India in relation to bringing of Uniform Civil Code in India remained a dead letter and held that a common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing disparate loyalties to laws which have conflicting ideologies. Here I would also like to add that in July 2019, the Parliament of India abolished the practice of “Triple Talaq” and made it a punishable act. However, much more needs to be done for removal of disparities within personal laws of various religious communities concerning women’s rights.

Before proceeding it is important to understand how different religions and their personal laws might be impacted by the formulation and implementation of a Uniform Civil Code: i) Hinduism: Existing laws like the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) and the Hindu Succession Act (1956) would need amendments; Uniform Civil Code would not allow exceptions based on customary practices. ii) Islam: the Muslim Personal (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 currently guides marriage, divorce, and maintenance under Islamic law; if Uniform Civil Code is introduced, the minimum age for marriage and the practice of polygamy could change. iii) Sikhs: Sikh marriage laws are governed by the Anand Marriage Act of 1909, but there is no provision for divorce; under Uniform Civil Code, a common law would likely apply to all communities, including marriages registered under the Anand Act. iv) Zoroastrian-Parsis: the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 currently restricts rights for women who marry outside their religion; Uniform Civil Code could abolish this provision and impact the recognition of adoptive daughters.

Since Jains and Buddhists in the country are governed under Hindu personal laws, as per the religion of the parties concerned, adherents of these religions also fall into the ambit of a common law applicable to all citizens throughout India.

Likewise, two other smaller minority communities, the Jews and the Bahá’is. Let me elaborate. Judaism: Currently, Jewish personal laws are governed by their religious customs and traditions. If the Uniform Civil Code is enforced these specific laws would be replaced by a uniform legal framework. For example, provisions related to marriage, divorce, and inheritance would no longer be guided solely by Jewish religious practices. Although the personal laws of the Bahá’i Faith are not yet officially recognized in India, the followers are guided by personal laws given by their Founder, Bahá’u’lláh. If the Uniform Civil Code is implemented, Bahá’is would also come under its purview. Their personal laws would be replaced by the common civil code. Issues like interfaith marriages, inheritance, and guardianship would be governed by the same legal provisions applicable to all citizens. In summary, while the Uniform Civil Code aims for uniformity, its impact on minority religions would involve a transition from religious-specific laws to a secular legal framework.

No one can say when the Uniform Civil Code would be adopted in the country but it is clear that the process has begun. There are critics across the country who argue that a Uniform Civil Code could undermine India's rich religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. They fear it might impinge upon the multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic ethos of the country and curtail the freedom of belief and practice of minority and tribal communities as granted in Articles 25-28 and 29 of the Constitution, and various judgments by the Courts of Law in the country. Therefore, the Government needs to ensure harmony in plurality rather than blanket uniformity for a flourishing democracy. 

As a member of the Bahá’i Faith, I may share that, its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, while affirming the validity of the great religions of the past has formulated laws and ordinances addressing the needs of entire humankind. In his Book of Laws, titled the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, which is also regarded as the charter for a new world order, Bahá’u’lláh has addressed three areas: i) the individual’s relationship to the Divine, ii) physical and spiritual matters which benefit the individual directly, iii) relations among individuals and between the individual and society. These precepts can be grouped under the following headings: prayer and fasting; laws of personal status governing marriage, divorce and inheritance; a range of other laws, ordinances and prohibitions, as well as exhortations; and the abrogation of specific laws and ordinances of past religious codes that now constitute obstacles to the emerging unification of the world and reconstruction of human society.

Set in the context of an ever-advancing civilization the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the kernel of a vast range of laws that will arise in the centuries to come and supplemented by the legislations of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council, that Bahá’u’lláh ordained for the progressive application of what could be regarded as the “universal civil code”. It is further elaborated in the Bahá’i writings that for the time being only the spiritual laws are universally binding upon the followers, the civil laws formulated by Governments in their respective countries should be obeyed as loyal citizens. The hope is expressed that as the society emerges from the chaotic conditions that prevail today the need for a “universal civil code” would be recognized by the governments of world. 

From an interfaith perspective, followers of all religions must understand the fundamentally spiritual character of the laws and ordinances contained in their Sacred Scriptures. The variations and peculiarities in different religious communities may be attributed to the socio-historical exigencies of diverse peoples in different regions of world when the means of communication were limited; access to knowledge was confined to a small section of the population, and multiple interpretations by religious leaders of the actual utterances of the founders’ respective religions.

In this Age, when peoples of  all races, nations, religions, and ethnic backgrounds are being challenged to subordinate all lesser loyalties and limiting identities to their oneness as citizens of a single planetary homeland, Bahá’u’lláh points out that through obedience to the laws and ordinances that are universally beneficial we can perceive the “fragrance” of Divinity. For, the real purpose of Law is to enable every human being to “ascend unto the station” conferred upon one’s inmost being; understand the full measure of one’s destiny on earth, and willing instruments “for the maintenance of order in the world and security of its peoples.”


*The author is a social worker, an independent researcher and an active promoter of the Interfaith Movement.