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India moves towards a common civil code

NEW DELHI (UCAN): India has initiated a process to establish a uniform personal code to replace its religion-based family law system, but the leaders of various religious bodies, including Christian Churches, are baulking at the suggestion.

The Law Commission of India has published a notice seeking public opinion on the issue.

It is asking all concerned groups to engage with the commission by responding to a questionnaire.

The commission says it aims to “address discrimination against vulnerable groups and harmonise various cultural practices.”

Suggestions for a draft of the common civil code are also welcome.

But the secretary to the Bishops’ Conference of India, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, says that a comprehensive consultation should have been carried out before any position was taken.

Currently, religion-based laws regulate marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance. For example, female inheritance rights vary according to religious grouping.

For example, Christian couples have to wait two years before they can file divorce papers, while a Muslim husband can legally divorce his wife by uttering talaq (I divorce you) three times. (If uttered by the wife it means, please divorce me).

The commission says it wants to begin a healthy conversation about the viability of a uniform code focussing on the family law of all religions and the diversity of customary practices, as it believes that the plurality of law creates inequality and injustice.

Muhammad Arif, the chairperson of the Centre for Harmony and Peace in Uttar Pradesh, said, “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 overnight.

“It is better for all of us, including all religious leaders to sit together and find a way which can be acceptable to all,” he said.

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

But women leaders, like Jyotsna Chatterjee, the director of the Protestant Joint Women’s Programme, said the issue of a common civil code has been under discussion for the past three decades.

“The Indian constitution also authorises the state to work towards a uniform civil code for the entire nation,” she pointed out.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer, M.P. Raju, explained that 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 the plurality of India’s religions and the diversity of its culture,” the lawyer explained.

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

Progress toward a common code will largely depend on how each religion responds to the government questionnaire.

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