Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Law Minister says NDA Government 'wants consultation' on controversial Uniform Civil Code

The National Democratic Alliance government has made it clear that the option of implementing a Uniform Civil Code is open.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday said there is a need for wide consultations with stakeholders on the issue of a common law irrespective of religion. 

The debate was reignited when BJP MP Yogi Adityanath asked the government in the Lok Sabha about the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code across the country. 

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Law Minister
Ravi Shankar Prasad, Law Minister

In his written reply, Prasad indicated the government was willing to bring in a uniform code in line with a constitutional provision, but only after consultations. 

"Provisions of Uniform Civil Code are there in Article 44 of the Constitution. Wide stakeholder consultation would be required for further steps in this regard," Prasad told Parliament. 

His response indicated that the government is ready for a debate on the controversial subject. 

The stand of the previous government has thus been completely turned around. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had maintained in Parliament that its government would not touch the subject. 

Stand changed

Uniform civil code
The stand taken by the law minister has left the door wide open for a discussion on the Uniform Civil Code. Though NDA ministers have made similar statements to the media in the recent past, this is the first time that the government has put forth its stand on the controversial issue in Parliament. 

It's a minefield, however. The NDA government faced strident criticism in May after junior minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Jitendra Singh, reignited the debate on Article 370 by calling it a "psychological barrier", and Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh went a step further soon after by saying there was no harm in having a debate on Article 370 of the Constitution that gives Jammu and Kashmir special status and a Uniform Civil Code. 
"Why should we shy away from weighing their pros and cons?" he had said. 

Prasad has recently said the government will come out with a structured response on the issue in due course. 

Diverse India

The Congress continues to maintain that the government should not tinker with personal laws, a necessity for bringing in a Uniform Civil Code. 

"The Uniform Civil Code has been on the agenda of the RSS ever since its inception. But let's not forget that India is a diverse country where people follow their own personal laws which have been evolved through traditions and customs going back thousands of years," said Congress leader Manish Tewari. 

Article 44, included in Part IV of the Constitution of India, lists the Uniform Civil Code as one of the Directive Principles of State policy that cannot be enforced by any court.

The Uniform Civil Code was part of the BJP election manifesto. The party believes there cannot be gender equality till India adopts a uniform code which protects the rights of all women.
In the manifesto, the BJP reiterated its stand on drafting a uniform code while "drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times". 

Goa is the only state in the country to have adopted a common law, called the Goa Civil Code. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has earlier spoken in favour of a Uniform Civil Code, clarifying that a common law would not mean that all citizens of the country would be brought under a Hindu code. 
The Supreme Court, in the famous Shah Bano case of 1985, granted alimony to a woman abandoned by her husband, and stressed the need for a Uniform Civil Code. 

Regretting that Article 44 of the Constitution had remained a "dead letter", the court had said a that Uniform Civil Code would help the cause of national integration.

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