Oct 19, 2015

A liberal case against a uniform civil code

October 19, 2015

A constipated, constricting UCC would be worse than the current scenario of competing personal laws, says Devangshu Datta.
A constipated, constricting UCC would be worse than the current scenario of competing personal laws, says Devangshu Datta.

A few days ago, the Supreme Court asked the government to formulate a Uniform Civil Code in accordance with the intentions laid down in Article 44 of the Constitution. The law minister says that this is a sensitive task, which is true.

The sensitivity arises despite broad agreement on the utility of a UCC. Most people say they would like a UCC. The devil lies in the details of what they want. The UCC I would draft, assuming anybody was fool enough to let me draft one, would be substantially different from one drafted by Asad Owaisi, or Sakshi Maharaj, to name two of India's most eminent legislators at random.

My UCC would also differ in key details from that drafted by my neighbour (a pleasant gentleman who is a doctor by profession). He and I drive different cars, watch different movies, have different tastes in clothes and music. We celebrate different festivals, different ways. Our sexual and matrimonial mores, how we would like to dispose of our property and our corpses when we kick the bucket, how we mark births and deaths in our respective families, etc, also differ a lot.

Changes in civil codes may impact some or all those preferences. My ideal UCC would be loose enough to minimally impact personal choice. A UCC should allow citizens to do what they want provided the preferences don't draw upon common State resources, or impinge upon other citizens' lifestyles.

My UCC would allow citizens to live with anybody or many-bodies of their choice, regardless of gender, provided everybody concerned was a consenting adult. Everybody would have to make provisions for dependents and for partners in even-handed fashion.

Citizens could worship anything, or nothing, provided the religious observances did not disturb others. Citizens could eat anything or drink anything they wanted. They could dispose of their dead in any hygienic fashion of choice, including donating bodies to science.

Thus, my UCC would leave a citizen free to worship invisible pink unicorns (IPU), provided he or she didn't block the street, or play hymns praising the IPU on loudspeakers at odd hours, or force neighbours to financially contribute to IPU worship.

That UCC would also allow a neighbour of the IPU-worshipper to do obeisance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), provided similar rules were observed about loudspeakers, streets and enforced funding. The chap across the street from these two religious lunatics could equally cheerfully collect postage stamps, or do astrological calculations standing on his head, while downing single malt and eating steak.

Nobody would be allowed special privileges. Members of all cults would face punishment if they attempted to coerce non-believers with different lifestyles. If a member of any cult died intestate, the same laws of inheritance would apply.

Unfortunately, the popular desi concept of a UCC is very different from this hands-off precis. Many legislators, if not all, see the UCC as a potential force multiplier, which will help them impose their preferred lifestyles and religious choices upon others.

The Shah Bano case back in 1985 was a glaring example of politicians opting to let religious law trump constitutional justice. Since then, random beef bans, a narrow interpretation of Section377 of the IPC, the victim-blaming speeches made by politician in every high-profile rape case, etc, make it clear that obscurantism driven by religious bigotry had gained ground.

Given competitive bigotry, I cannot see a UCC happening, and perhaps it is just as well. A constipated, constricting UCC would be worse than the current scenario of competing personal laws. Indians are majoritarian by nature; every community blocks roads and plays loudspeakers to ostentatiously celebrate religious festivals by causing maximum inconvenience. There is also a tendency for legislation to heroically micro-manage personal choices.

Most tellingly, religious offence is such a potent influence upon public opinion that one has to frame this argument in terms of Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Invisible Pink Unicorns. That is like being forced to call a spade an instrument for excavation rather than a bloody shovel.


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