The Law Commission, which has embarked on a gigantic exercise of inviting public opinion on the contentious Uniform Civil Code (UCC), has sought to dispel fears raised by Muslim and Christian groups, assuring that personal laws will not be touched "beyond the extent permitted by the Constitution".
In his first interview after receiving over 40,000 responses to a questionnaire on the proposal, commission chairman Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan told Mail Today that the focus of the exercise is only to end gender discrimination and social injustice.
The effort is to synergise family law with gender equality, he said, ruling out any attempt to end plurality of laws.
HERE IS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
- The ruling BJP has been pushing for such a common code despite resistance from rivals and even some allies. Religious minority groups have opposed the plan, saying such a common law would interfere with their codes of conduct.
- Terming the number of responses to the questionnaire "overwhelming", Chauhan said in a lighter vein that "now it has become like counting money which has accumulated in a temple hundi".
- "We will not go outside the constitutional framework," he said. "So there is no reason for anyone to have any kind of apprehension. It is a comprehensive exercise of the revision and reform of family laws. The objective is only to address discrimination against various groups and harmonise various cultural practices," said Chauhan.
- Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution guarantee every citizen the right to practice and promote their religion peacefully.
- Asked about fears raised from various quarters that the UCC would infringe this fundamental right, the former Supreme Court judge said, "We are making it clear that we are not touching any constitutional right of any individual. We are very mindful of that. Whatever we will do, will be within the framework of the Constitution and law of the country."
- The demand for a uniform civil code essentially means unifying personal laws to have one set of secular laws that will apply to all citizens of India irrespective of the community they belong to. The BJP had also promised UCC in its poll manifesto ahead of the 2014 general elections. The Constitution right now allows most religions to regulate matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance through their own civil code.
WHY DID THE ALL INDIA MUSLIM PERSONAL LAW BOARD REFUSE DEBATE
Chauhan's remarks assume significance against the backdrop of bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) refusing to even debate UCC.
They had rejected the questionnaire, terming it an "affront" on their personal laws and even accused the law panel of behaving like an agent of the Narendra Modi government - arguing that the proposed common code is a threat to the country's pluralism and diversity. However, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India last month came out in support of UCC on the condition that it confirms the "spirit and mandate" of the Constitution.
"Why can't there be a healthy debate on the issue?" Chauhan asked. "That is the purpose behind the questionnaire. Why should the commission take a decision without knowing what the people want? According to us, this is the most democratic approach and Article 44 of the Constitution says the state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code. So this whole exercise has the backing of the Constitution also."
WHAT DOES THE QUESTIONNAIRE INCLUDE
The 16-point questionnaire includes questions on what are the subjects that the UCC should include or exclude, if all religions should have common grounds for divorce and if UCC will ensure gender equality. It also seeks views on talaq, polyandry, polygamy, etc.
Asked about the nature of reforms, Chauhan said, "Only after going through responses will we decide how we will have to proceed. We ourselves do not know what the code will be." The commission issued the questionnaire after law ministry on July 2 last year asked it to examine all issues pertaining to the code and submit a report.