UCC triggers litany of questions in Parliament, govt has no clear answers
The Centre may not yet have a draft Bill for the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong pitch in its favour last month and the Law Commission’s ongoing public consultations over such a law have triggered a litany of questions from members of both Houses of Parliament, including those from the ruling BJP.
However, as Parliament convened for its monsoon session on Thursday (July 20), it was clear that the Centre has no coherent answers to offer to the UCC debate triggered by the Prime Minister himself.
What’s the need for fresh consultation? ask MPs
In the Rajya Sabha, five MPs – Ramnath Thakur of the JD(U), Elamaram Kareem of the CPI(M), MDMK’s Vaiko, DMK’s M Shanmugam and Iranna Kadadi of the ruling BJP – had submitted unstarred questions seeking the Law Ministry’s response to various issues concerning the UCC. Vaiko and Shanmugam wanted to know why the 22nd Law Commission chaired by Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, had initiated a fresh consultation process on the UCC and if the Centre was willing to assure the minority communities that such a law “will not be brought until there is a broad consensus”.
Kareem had pointedly asked the Centre if it planned to implement the UCC and also enquired about the reasons for 22nd Law Commission not accepting the position taken by its preceding commission, which had dubbed the UCC as “neither necessary, nor desirable”, and instead seeking fresh views on the matter “in a hurried manner”.
Thakur too questioned if the government was moving towards enactment of the UCC and whether it had worked out the modalities for such a law. Interestingly, Kadadi, a BJP MP from Karnataka, had asked if the government had taken steps to “ensure a comprehensive and inclusive consultation process while formulating the UCC” and how the Centre planned to “ensure that the UCC respects the diverse cultural, religious and social norms prevalent in the country”.
Centre has no draft of the UCC: Law Minister
Varied as the questions were, Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal’s written reply to them was rather uniform (no pun intended). Meghwal glossed over all questions pertaining to the Centre’s viewpoint and plan of action on the UCC. Instead, he informed all five members that the “21st Law Commission of India had issued a consultation paper on “Reform of Family Law” on 31.08.2018. However, it had not submitted any report. Since more than four years have lapsed from the date of issuance of the said consultation paper, the 22nd Law Commission decided to solicit views and ideas of the public at large and religious organisations on 14.06.2023, bearing in mind the relevance and importance of the subject matter and also various court orders on the subject of uniform civil code.”
However, it was Thakur’s question regarding the modalities framed by the Centre for an impending UCC that solicited a reply from Meghwal, which several Opposition leaders had been speaking off while responding to the public debate on the controversial proposal. Meghwal informed Thakur that the “question of modalities does not accrue at this stage”, ostensibly indicating that the Centre had no draft of the UCC under its consideration at the moment.
Come up with ‘uniform’ draft: INDIA dares Centre
Several Opposition parties that are ranged against the UCC for fear of the deep communal and social divide that such a law could create have been asserting that for them to articulate their view on the matter, the Centre will first need to present a draft Bill. Opposition parties such as the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the RJD and others, who have now coalesced, alongwith two dozen other parties, under the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition, have dared the Centre to come out with a draft UCC that is “uniform” in the real sense.
The INDIA coalition has maintained that Modi’s pitch for subsuming personal and customary laws of all communities and religions under an umbrella legislation was merely to create further polarisation of the electorate ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who steered the recently concluded two-daylong Opposition Unity dialogue in Bangalore where the INDIA coalition officially took form, had indicated on July 18 that the Opposition alliance will not get drawn into the UCC debate until the Centre puts a draft law in the public domain.
Sources in the INDIA coalition told The Federal that the absence of a draft UCC was one of the prime reasons why members of the alliance had decided against seeking a discussion on the contentious issue in the ongoing session of Parliament, which began on an uproarious note on Thursday in wake of the raging nationwide uproar triggered by a viral video of two women in strife-torn Manipur being paraded naked and subjected to unmentionable sexual violence.
However, the Opposition seems to have decided on attempting to corner the Centre into giving some categorical response to the many questions over the UCC that have confounded politicians, legal experts, activists, religious groups and the common public alike.
On Friday (July 21), unstarred questions on the UCC by as many as 15 Lok Sabha MPs, including the BJP’s Rakesh Singh, have been listed for a reply to be furnished by the Law Minister.
Aside from seeking an explanation on the need for the 22nd Law Commission to renew public consultation over the UCC, the first batch of questions by MPs Ravneet Singh Bittu, Thirunavukkarasar Su, Dean Kuriakose (all from the Congress), A Ganeshamurthy, A. Raja (both from the DMK), Rakesh Singh (BJP) also enquires if the Centre would “constitute a commission to study the grievances/objections raised by different Minority communities on the issue of UCC”.
MPs Mala Roy, Sougata Roy (both from the Trinamool Congress), Ravikumar D (DMK), VK Sreekandan (Congress) and Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) have asked the law minister what was the rationale behind the Law Commission inviting fresh recommendations and suggestions for the UCC “despite wide opposition from different quarters” on the issue.
Among the questions asked by Vinayak Raut, Arvind Sawant (both from Uddhav Thackeray’s faction of the Shiv Sena), Sougata Roy (TMC) and Rakesh Singh (BJP) are “whether adoption of cultures, beliefs and traditions of tribal community is a challenging factor for UCC and may cause difficulties in its implementation” and if the Centre has plans to exclude the tribals from the ambit of the UCC.
These MPs have also asked the government whether it has decided on a time-frame for the implementation of the UCC and “whether the government has analysed the likely effect of implementation” of the communally and socially divisive law.
Tricky matter of tribal rights
The questions on the application of the UCC to the tribal community, which is vastly heterogeneous in its religious and customary laws, are significant. Several senior BJP leaders, including Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Union minister SP Singh Baghel and Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Modi, have been asserting that the UCC will not be applicable to the tribals, particularly those from the north eastern states of India.
Opposition leaders such as Congress MP Manish Tewari and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, among others, have said that the Centre can’t possibly claim it is bringing a uniform law if such legislation excludes certain categories of people at the very outset.
The BJP, evidently wary of an electoral backlash from this numerically crucial tribal electorate, has been justifying the exclusion of the community from the UCC’s ambit on grounds that the customary practices regarding marriage, inheritance and adoption among different tribal groups has protection under the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule and, thus, can be justifiably excluded from the UCC. However, this articulation by BJP leaders has drawn flak from its rivals who insist that the sole aim behind the party’s UCC push is to abolish the personal laws of the Muslim community.
It remains to be seen whether Meghwal, who will have to reply to the questions posed by the 15 MPs on Friday (July 21), will simply reiterate the position he took while responding to the Rajya Sabha MPs – that the matter is under the Law Commission’s consideration for the moment and the Centre hasn’t got down to drafting the law – or if he is compelled to respond to the specific and more substantive issues raised by the Lok Sabha members.
What has, however, become evident from Meghwal’s response in the Rajya Sabha is that in stark contrast to the rhetoric by BJP members, including the prime minister, the Centre, thus far, has no lucid replies to offer on the germane and tricky aspects of the UCC.