NEW DELHI: An Indian state on Wednesday passed a common civil code to replace religious laws, with supporters saying it protected women’s rights but critics fearing it heralds a countrywide rollout by the Hindu nationalist ruling party.
The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) law, passed in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, has reignited a polarising debate weeks before expected national elections.
Supporters say it gives Muslim women the same rights as others by ending polygamy, setting equal property inheritance rights for sons and daughters, and requiring divorce processes take place before a civil court.
It also fixes the minimum age of marriage at 18 for women and 21 for men, and makes it mandatory to register live-in heterosexual relationships — or face a three-month jail term or a fine.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, speaking before the bill was approved, said it would end “ill practices” and “provide equal rights to all”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long campaigned for standardised civil laws but that has fuelled tensions, especially among minority Muslims.
The move comes weeks after Modi’s consecration of a grand temple in Ayodhya at the site where a Mughal-era Babri mosque was demolished by Hindu zealots.
Critics see it as a signal from the ruling BJP to its base and a promise to implement the UCC nationally after elections expected in April that it is already tipped to win.
“History is being created,” added Dhami, leader of a state with some 12 million people, roughly 80 per cent of them Hindu. “It will present an example for other states.”
India’s 1.4 billion people are subject to a common criminal code, introduced under British colonial rule.
But they have never followed uniform laws for personal matters such as marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance, which are governed instead by a patchwork of varied codes.
Muslim leaders say the UCC challenges Islamic laws on divorce, marriage and inheritance.
“We cannot accept any law that is against Shariah,” said Arshad Madani, from the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a Muslim social organisation.
“We want our marriage system to be governed by the Holy Quran,” said Asma Zohra, who heads the All India Muslim Women Association.
“The issue of child marriage can be handled through societal reform, not by imposing a law without consulting us.”
Other clauses also sparked objections, including the registration of partners living together.
“The compulsory registration takes away the freedom to choose not being married,” senior lawyer Geeta Luthra told newspaper the Indian Express.The state “should not enter into the realm of what citizens do consensually”, Luthra added.Goa, the beach resort state on India’s west coast, is the only part of the country that already had a common code, introduced when it was still a Portuguese colony.