Uttarakhand implements the uniform civil code amid concerns of cultural overreach

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The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand has become the first to implement a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India. President Droupadi Murmu has granted assent to the state's UCC Bill, 2024, a landmark legislation that seeks to standardise personal laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption across all religions.

The announcement was made by Uttarakhand's Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who took to X (formerly Twitter) to express his joy and pride at this momentous occasion. In his post, Dhami hailed the UCC as a step towards providing equal rights to all citizens and curbing the oppression of women, while promoting social harmony and equality within the state.

The Bill, comprising a staggering 392 sections across seven schedules, is based on a 750-page draft prepared by an expert panel headed by former Supreme Court Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai. After a comprehensive two-day deliberation in the State Assembly, the Bill was passed on February 7, paving the way for its presidential assent.

At its core, the UCC mandates the registration of all live-in relationships, granting legal legitimacy to children born out of such unions and entitling abandoned partners to maintenance. It prohibits practices like polygamy and “halala,” aiming to uphold gender equality and protect the vulnerable, with a few exceptions for tribal communities to preserve their customs.

Proponents laud the UCC as a long-overdue step towards a secular, egalitarian society, free from the complexities of diverse personal laws. They argue that it will streamline legal proceedings, prevent exploitation and foster social harmony by eliminating disparities based on religion or gender.

However, even before the President's assent, the UCC faced a barrage of criticism from various quarters. Women's rights activists and opposition MLAs had voiced their concerns when the Bill was introduced, demanding that it be referred to a Standing Committee or Select Committee for further deliberations.

In a joint statement, women's groups in the state had argued that provisions like the mandatory registration of live-in relationships would not safeguard women's rights but rather stifle their freedom, leaving them vulnerable to scrutiny by the state and vigilante groups. They contended that the Bill was “criminalising and regulating constitutionally acceptable behaviours, like adult consenting cohabitation, called 'live in', reducing autonomy and choice, which the women in this country have attained through concerted efforts, inside the homes and on public platforms.”

The statement also raised concerns about the Bill's applicability to residents living outside the state, asserting that their demands for wider discussions were ignored before the Bill was hastily passed amid chants of “Jai Shri Ram” (hail god Ram) in the Assembly.

Opposition voices had also emerged from political quarters, with Congress MLA Bhuwan Chandra Kapri accusing the BJP of hypocrisy in projecting the UCC as a women's rights issue while infringing upon their rights and freedoms. He questioned how the state could overwrite the Supreme Court's validation of live-in relationships by mandating their registration, citing the potential for marital havoc, harassment from disgruntled relatives or neighbours and even blackmail.

Critics like Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, had also accused the UCC of being a "Hindu Code" that targets Muslim practices related to polygamy and divorce under Sharia law. Owaisi argued that by exempting Scheduled Tribes and not addressing the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) system, the UCC lacks uniformity and appears to impose the BJP's cultural values on minorities. 

Moreover, detractors argue that the UCC's broad strokes in defining live-in relationships and the ambiguities surrounding its implementation have fuelled fears of arbitrary interpretation and potential abuse of power by authorities. Critics warn that the legislation's sweeping, one-size-fits-all nature could disrupt the delicate but rich cultural balance in India, eroding the very diversity it claims to celebrate. As several other BJP-ruled states eagerly follow Uttarakhand's precedent, the UCC's rollout will undoubtedly face legal challenges and societal resistance from various quarters.