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India moves towards a common civil code

Religious leaders are guarded as the government seeks their input in a draft to replace separate religious law

India moves towards a common civil code

A friend adjusts the ornamental headgear of an Indian groom during a wedding in Mumbai in this file photo. The Indian government has initiated the process to establish a uniform civil code replacing religion-based family law. (Photo by AFP) 

The Indian government has initiated the process to establish a uniform personal code replacing religion-based family law, but religious leaders including Christians are reticent.

The Law Commission of India has published a notice seeking people’s opinion on the issue. It asked "all concerned to engage with us" by answering a questionnaire.

The commission said it aimed to "address discrimination against vulnerable groups and harmonize various cultural practices." They also invited suggestions for the draft of the common civil code and to submit responses.

"Comprehensive consultations were required" before taking any stand on this "very serious matter," said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishops’ conference.

The Church in India "will make sure that our voices are heard at the national level," Bishop Mascarenhas said, adding that top leaders from the national bishops’ conference are already studying the questionnaire.

Currently religion-based laws regulate marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance. For example, female inheritance rights varies according to their religion, and Christian couples have to wait two years to file their divorce papers while a Muslim husband can legally divorce his wife by uttering "talaq" three times.

The commission said it "hopes to begin a healthy conversation" about the viability of a uniform code focusing on the family law of all religions and the diversity of customary practices, "to address social injustice rather than having a plurality of laws."

Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace in Uttar Pradesh state said that "if the law helps the community without hurting or compromising our traditional law, we can go for it."

The Muslim leader said the uniform code "will not happen in a day or two. We have to debate and discuses it in detail and see that it does not interfere with our beliefs and practices. It is better for all of us, including all religious leaders to sit together and find a way which can be acceptable to all." 

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party promised to introduce a draft uniform civil code in its 2014 election manifesto but did not elaborate during the campaign fearing a backlash if political rivals painted it as a push for Hindu hegemony.

But women leaders such as Jyotsna Chatterjee, director of the Protestant Joint Women’s Program said the issue of a common civil code has been in discussion for the past three decades. The Indian Constitution also authorizes the state to work towards a uniform civil code for the entire nation, she said.

"We look at it from women’s perspective. If a uniform law helps women then we as a society should sit together and work towards it," she said.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer, M.P. Raju said a uniform civil code does not mean a single law for all people across India.

"What the constitution envisages is a common code that will respect customs and plurality of India’s religions and the diversity of its culture," he said.

A common civil code is a "natural progression" as several Supreme Court judgements in the past have pointed out social injustice and discrimination resulting from personal codes, according to Raju.

The progress toward a common code will largely "depend on how each religion responds to the government questionnaire," he said.

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