In his book, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau illustrates how societal evolution can replace religious laws with more progressive ones. Rousseau writes about Geneva, his birthplace, where strict Calvinist laws initially shaped every aspect of civic life. However, as Geneva progressed and interacted with other European cities, these restrictive laws became outdated. Recognising this, the city’s leaders gradually introduced more liberal laws, inspired by Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Over time, these laws replaced religious laws, despite initial resistance. This transition was instrumental in promoting civic rights, equality, and freedom in Geneva, ultimately leading to a more harmonious and progressive society.
As societies evolve, they outgrow religious laws that no longer align with contemporary values. Rousseau’s anecdote about the evolution of laws in Geneva has a parallel in the need for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in any diverse society, including India. Just as Geneva evolved from strict Calvinist laws to more progressive ones to accommodate societal changes, India, with its incredible religious and cultural diversity, could also benefit from such a transition. All personal laws evolved in a certain social and historical context. As societies move on, so must personal laws. They must change, as they have. Resistance to change is no argument for persisting with the outdated.
A UCC is a unified legal structure intended to apply uniformly nationwide, covering all religious communities. It applies to all Indian citizens, regardless of religion. Laws on marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance and adoption must be consistent and standard for all citizens. That’s what a UCC is. The UCC is entry no. 5 in the Concurrent List: “Marriage and divorce; infants and minors; adoption; wills, intestacy and succession; joint family and partition; all matters in respect of which parties in judicial proceedings were immediately before the commencement of this Constitution subject to their personal law”. Thus, states can also introduce a UCC, if state assemblies so wish, and so can the Union government. States like Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Assam are reportedly moving towards implementing a UCC.
However, this isn’t a fresh concept by any stretch. The roots of the UCC can be traced back to intense discussions in the Constituent Assembly debates, where leaders like B R Ambedkar, K M Munshi, and Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar argued for its introduction. One should quote K M Munshi during a debate on 23 November 1948, where he said that the “… attitude of mind perpetuated under the British rule, that personal law is part of religion has been fostered by the British and by British courts. We must, therefore, outgrow it. If I may just remind the honourable Member who spoke last of a particular incident from Fereshta which comes to my mind, Allauddin Khilji made several changes which offended against the Shariat, though he was the first ruler to establish a Muslim Sultanate here. The kazi of Delhi objected to some of his reforms, and his reply was, ‘I am an ignorant man, and I am ruling this country in its best interests. I am sure, looking at my ignorance and my good intentions, the Almighty will forgive me, when he finds that I have not acted according to the Shariat.’ If Allauddin could not, much less can a modern government accept the proposition that religious rights cover personal law or several other matters which we have been unfortunately trained to consider as part of our religion.” Secularism means religion has a private space and public policy is religion-neutral. Laws shape public policy.
As a result of this advocacy, the UCC was mentioned in Part 4, Article 44 of the Constitution as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP). Despite this, a UCC has not been implemented. The argument that Directive Principles are not justiciable will not wash. De facto, Directive Principles have been treated as justiciable.
The lack of a UCC in India, despite its diversity, fuels social inequities, and challenges secularism. The reluctance to implement it stems from perceived fears of disrupting religious customs and potential political implications. However, failure to adopt it undercuts our national unity and shirks our commitment to an egalitarian society. The current state of legal variance across different communities is not merely problematic—it is a crisis undermining the cohesion and unity of society. This labyrinth of discrepancies in personal laws—marriage, divorce, adoption, maintenance, inheritance and guardianship—casts a shadow of inequality and discord over communities. Grounds for divorce, such as adultery and impotency, differ starkly among Hindus, Christians, Parsis and Muslims. Furthermore, the treatment of underage marriage varies enormously across these communities. This divergence in legalities is not just a headache—it’s a heartache that breeds feelings of injustice and fuels persistent iniquities among citizens. The time has come to cease ignoring these disparities and recognise the urgent need for uniform laws based on principles of gender justice and equality. An inability to do it in 1950 is not an argument for an inability to do it more than seven decades after Independence.
Everyone knows about the Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum judgement. The Supreme Court had ruled in Bano’s favour, stating that the secular laws of India protected her right to alimony. However, in the face of backlash from orthodox Muslim groups who viewed the decision as an infringement on Islamic law or “Sharia,” the Rajiv Gandhi government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. This act effectively nullified the Supreme Court’s verdict and exempted Muslim men from a maintenance obligation beyond the period of “iddat” (a waiting period in which a Muslim woman cannot remarry after she has been divorced.)
There is no dearth of provisions in the personal laws that often favour one gender over another, particularly disadvantaging women. They are divorced from the principle of gender justice. A UCC can be the hammer that shatters these entrenched biases. For societies to progress, uniform laws are not merely an idealistic notion—they are the backbone of the constitutional promise of equality for all citizens. They will bolster our social fabric, help to reduce inter-communal disparities and fortify societal unity. With a UCC in place, a uniform set of civil laws will apply to every citizen, irrespective of faith. This isn’t just uniformity; it’s the embodiment of clarity, fairness, and equality.
Goa has a UCC despite the code not encompassing every subject an ideal UCC should address. The Goan UCC adheres to a principle of universality, applying equally across religions, while preserving certain specific rights. A milestone reform occurred on December 22, 2016, when the Goa Succession, Special Notaries and Inventory Proceedings Act, 2012, replaced aspects of the Portuguese Civil Code. This legal transformation largely resonates with the original Portuguese Civil Code, particularly concerning family assets. Marital property law in Goa mandates joint ownership of assets—obtained either before or after marriage—by both spouses. Should divorce occur, each spouse can claim a rightful 50 per cent share of these properties. Interestingly, the law recognises pre-nuptial agreements, introducing the possibility of alternative arrangements for asset division. Goa’s UCC stipulates that a minimum of half of the property must transition to the legal heirs as ‘legitime’, reflecting the ‘coparcenary’ (joint heirship) concept seen in Hindu law, and this extends even to self-acquired properties. Further, polygamy is prohibited for Muslim men for marriages registered in the state. States should take cues from Goa.
Through its various judgements, the Supreme Court has nudged Parliament towards introducing a UCC. In Jose Paulo Coutinho vs. Maria Luiza Valentina Pereira & Anr. (2010), Justice Deepak Gupta had observed, “Though Hindu laws were codified in the year 1956, there has been no attempt to frame a Uniform Civil Code applicable to all citizens of the country despite exhortations of this Court in the case of Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs. Shah Bano and Sarla Mudgal & Ors. vs. Union of India & Ors.” Previously in Sarla Mudgal, the court had observed, “The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 have replaced the traditional Hindu law based on different schools of thought and scriptural laws into one unified code. When more than 80 per cent of the citizens have already been brought under the codified personal law, there is no justification whatsoever to keep in abeyance, any more, the introduction of a ‘uniform civil code’ for all citizens in the territory of India.”
It is also worth mentioning that there was a blueprint of a UCC drafted by Tufail Ahmed that sets out broad principles. The proposal is even more all-encompassing. It guarantees equal rights to all citizens, regardless of gender, religion, or sexual orientation, in matters of inheritance, adoption, and succession, removing tax benefits tied to religious or other identities.
It should be evident that a UCC is not an affront to cultural or religious diversity, but rather, an affirmation of equal rights and justice. As India continues to evolve and mature as a nation, a UCC can serve as the cornerstone of secularism and unity in diversity. The essence of a UCC is not to homogenise, but to harmonise. Towards that end, how many nudges do we need?
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'One Nationa, One Law')
Bibek Debroy is chairman, economic advisory council to the prime minister (EAC-PM)
Aditya Sinha is additional private secretary (policy & research), EAC-PM