The Times of India
‘We ourselves don’t know what Uniform Civil Code is … merely started an academic debate to know what people think’
October 24, 2016, 2:00 am IST TOI Q&A in The Interviews Blog | Edit Page, India, Q&A | TOI
The Law Commission’s move on October 7 to seek public opinion on whether triple talaq should be abolished and if a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) should be enacted has triggered a national debate on minority rights though the panel emphasised that it is seeking to address social injustice rather than do away with the plurality of laws. Former Supreme Court judge and Chairperson of the 21st Law Commission Justice BS Chauhan spoke to Aarti Tikoo Singh about UCC and Law Commission’s thinking on it:
What is the historical significance of UCC?
When the Constituent Assembly discussed it for the first time, many people were not agreeable to a UCC so BR Ambedkar left it for the future. That is why, in the Constitution, a specific word was used in Article 44 (UCC): “endeavour”. The Code is an aspirational idea. Most of the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution like education, healthcare, nutrition and environment have been enforced by way of various Acts. But there is no conversation about UCC.
The Supreme Court has also been asking in several judgments why UCC has not come into existence as yet. The last judgment came in 2015 and it is in that context we got the reference to initiate a debate on it.
What does UCC mean and why does India need it?
We ourselves don’t know what UCC is and what is required. At this stage, we cannot anticipate what should be its template or model, what will be acceptable to people and to what extent the government is willing to go ahead with it. We have merely started an academic debate because we want to know what people think and what they want.
Why did you choose to go to people directly?
The Commission is only a recommending body and we believe in democratic procedure. We did not want to recommend something that people do not want. After collecting feedback, we will be able to draw an inference whether the time for UCC has come or not. Our recommendations will go to a standing committee, then to Parliament and ultimately it is the government’s decision whether it wants to implement it or not.
How will the Commission process massive feedback from across the country?
We have assigned staff to deal with feedback from day one. We have received thousands of letters and emails. This is not for the first time that we are conducting such an exercise. The Law Commission recently asked for opinions from all the lawyers across the country on reforms required in the Advocates Act, 1961.
But several religious minority groups have protested against the initiative on UCC.
Our recommendations will not be made on numbers alone. There will be deliberations with political and religious leaders also. I have already assured minority groups that nothing will happen without consulting them. We are not in a hurry. So i would say it is too early for anyone to protest.
Critics think the Law Commission questionnaire is loaded against only one community. Do you agree?
If there are bad customs and practices in our society, irrespective of religious community, and if people point them out, we will certainly consider them.
Are there any other customs and practices like ‘Maitree Karaar’ (mistress deed) among Hindus which need reform and inclusion in your questionnaire?
There are many customs across India which need to be reviewed and reformed. For example, polyandry among Hindus is probably still being practised at some places. But how does the new India look at such practices? That is something we would like to know from the people of the country.
Will UCC impinge on the fundamental right to religion?
That is the question the abrogation of triple talaq raises but it is pending in the Supreme Court. Whatever the court’s decision, we will be guided and bound by it.
Do courts have the authority or power to interfere in citizens’ religious practices?
Courts and governments do not have a right to interfere in citizens’ religious faith. But there is a difference between religion or faith and religious practice. Practices such as untouchability, devdasi, child marriage, polygamy were bad practices in the name of religion and therefore banned by law. For 2,000 years, same-gotra marriage was prohibited but Hindu Marriage Act 1955, permitted it.
Child marriage is still rampant. So what is the purpose of reformative laws like UCC if there is hardly any enforcement?
Even if there is low enforcement of laws, the aggrieved party should always have the recourse to knock at the doors of judiciary. In the absence of law, victims have nothing to fall back on.