Seventy years ago, B.R. Ambedkar had famously said this in a passionate speech in the Constituent Assembly: “No one need be apprehensive that if the State has the power, the State will immediately proceed to execute…that power in a manner may be found to be objectionable by the Muslims or by the Christians or by any other community. I think it would be a mad government if it did so.” The father of the Indian Constitution made this reference after a consensus on putting a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in place proved elusive: it was a universally governing structure that he envisioned as a secular family law, one that was not constrained by any religious law or community custom. He had desired a UCC that would replace religious personal laws regarding marriage, inheritance, adoption, succession and all other rights within the family that flow from religion or tradition. Finally, he had to settle for a mention in the directive principles in Article 44 of the Constitution, which said “the State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a uniform civil code”.
This, then, presents the ruling dilemma for almost everyone. Even Ambedkar wanted reform. To be sure, religious laws or community customs are not always the most rational, just or equitable—this applies to ‘Hindu’ traditions too, which are probably as numerous as there are dialects in the country. Hindus too are governed by community-specific laws, which are still in evolution. For instance, it was only in 2005 that Hindu women were granted the rights to family property, for instance—and the right to marital property in case of a divorce is still denied to them. Not all practices are codified either: the Bhils have an annual ‘bhagora’ festival where a boy can elope with a girl and they’re recognised thereafter as a couple; and both the Baigas of the Narmada region and the Santhals further east recognise polygamy. Bigamy/polygamy is widely attested to be more prevalent among Hindus anyway. But the way the idea of a uniform code is presented to Indians is mostly within the frame of ‘secularism’—in other words, as if it’s only to do with ‘minority appeasement’.