A Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a desirable and progressive goal for a secular country. However, mere uniformity without making reasonable allowances for diverse cultural and social practices among different social groups may not be ideal. The UCC adopted by the Uttarakhand Assembly aims to consolidate the laws relating to marriage, divorce and succession among all communities. The State has become the first since pre-Independence Goa to adopt a uniform code for civil matters. What is particularly violative of the Constitution is the bizarre portion in this UCC aiming to formalise live-in relationships through registration. This unwanted incursion into citizens’ personal life is worsened by the prescription of a three-month prison term for non-registration. It will expose citizens to intrusive inquiries, social hostility and pointless deprivation of liberty. While it contains positive features such as conferring legitimacy on children born of live-in relations and mandating maintenance in the event of desertion, the very idea that people living together should submit themselves to registration and verification is repugnant to individual rights.
When the Constitution makers made the adoption of a UCC one of the directive principles, opinion was divided on whether a UCC will undermine minority rights or promote equal status for women in all religions. B.R. Ambedkar felt the UCC, if enacted, should be voluntary in the initial stages. The previous Law Commission had said a UCC is neither desirable nor necessary, and, instead, suggested that each body of personal law be reformed to eliminate discrimination or regressive practices. However, the present Law Commission has revived the idea and has started gathering views from the public. Much of the Uttarakhand Code seems to have been borrowed from existing laws on marriage and succession, but with significant omissions. For instance, the Code is the only avenue for dissolving a marriage and there is no waiting period to remarry after a divorce; nor is there any need for a woman to marry another person before she can re-marry her former husband. These provisions, which eliminate the concepts of iddat, talaq and nikah halala, are all progressive and further individual rights. Interestingly, it preserves the existing provision allowing custom and usage as an exception to the bar on marriage within prohibited degrees of relationship, but adds a rider that such custom cannot be against public policy or morality. An unfortunate fallout of all this is a polarising discourse taking shape in the run-up to the general election. The concept of justice should not be lost in the search for uniformity, which should be no more than an incidental consequence of equality.