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Church Cautious About Supreme Court Suggestion For Common Civil Code

Updated: July 24, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Church people have welcomed the Indian Supreme Court´s scrapping of part of a law as discriminatory against Christians but cautioned about its recommendation to have a common civil code binding all Indians.

The apex court on July 23 ruled as unconstitutional Section 118 of the Indian Succession Act of 1925, which restricted property donations for religious or charitable purposes by Christians survived by close relatives.

In the ruling, the court recommended that the government enact a uniform civil code. In India, separate personal laws govern people belonging to different religions.

Father Donald De Souza, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India, told UCA News the following day that the Church welcomes the ruling. But "extreme caution should be taken and a conducive atmosphere created" before the government "even thinks of moving toward a common civil code," he said.

"At no time," he emphasized, "should there be any attempt to change the fundamental tenets and value system of any religion while an attempt is made to form such a code."

The court ruling came on a petition in 1997 by Father John Vallamattam, who said the Indian Succession Act imposes the property donation restriction only on Christians. The petition also pointed out that a Christian who wanted to bequeath property for religious or charitable purposes had to put the request on record at least 12 months before his or her death.

The court said this was "discriminatory against Christians" and violated the "right to equality" guaranteed in the constitution.

British colonial rulers put this law in place "to protect illiterate or semi-literate persons who used to blindly follow the preachers of religion," the court noted. "Such a purpose has lost all significance with the passage of time," it added. It then suggested the government enact a uniform civil code.

Father Vallamattam told UCA News July 24 he is "happy that such a great verdict has come" and the Church "has complete faith in the judiciary."

The priest of Kothamangalam diocese in the southern state of Kerala said he filed his petition as he "felt that personal laws of the country were highly discriminatory, antique and inequitable toward Christians."

Christians form less than 3 percent of the people in Hindu-majority India. The Indian Succession Act and two laws on Christian marriage and divorce enacted by the British more than 130 years ago comprise the personal laws applicable to the community. Muslims constitute about 12 percent of India´s more than 1 billion people and have their own personal laws.

However, the Indian Constitution, promulgated in 1950, says "the State shall endeavor to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India."

The Supreme Court regretted this constitutional provision "has not been given effect to. Parliament is still to step in for framing a common civil code in the country." The court´s recommendation for implementation of this provision, though, is not binding on parliament.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People´s Party) that heads the federal coalition government welcomed the recommendation.

BJP spokesperson Vijay Kumar Malhotra told reporters July 23 that his party expects coalition members and the opposition to support relevant legislation.

A common civil code was one of the poll promises that helped the Hindu-nationalist BJP come to power about four years ago. But the party did not gain a majority and its coalition partners made it shelve some of its agenda.

Eduardo Felario, a Catholic parliamentarian belonging to the opposition Congress, told UCA News his party is studying the court ruling and will work for reforms that guard the rights and identity of religious minorities.

Certain sectors, however, do not support a common personal law.

Jyotsna Chatterjee, director of the Protestant Joint Women´s Program, argued that people, especially villagers, are reluctant to move away from age-old customs and traditions. She warned that any new laws imposed on them "will result in alienation rather than assimilation." Demand for change should come from communities, she told UCA News.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board also rejects the demand for a common civil code. Board spokesperson Qasim Rasool Ilyasi told media that such a law would cause "disintegration of the country."

Zafar-ul-Khan, director of the Institute of Islamic and Arab Studies in New Delhi, told UCA News, "Muslims do not accept a common civil code since they are governed by Islamic laws the world over."


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