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Article India: Legislative Assembly of Uttarakhand Enacts Uniform Civil Code

On February 7, 2024, the Legislative Assembly of the state of Uttarakhand in India passed the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill. On March 13, the bill was granted assent by President Droupadi Murmu. The bill claims to establish a uniform and equal set of rules on personal status law, including marriage, divorce, succession, and inheritance, that applies to all citizens of the state irrespective of religion. However, according to section 2 of the code, the law does not apply to Scheduled Tribes of the state.

The draft was prepared by a five-member committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and was introduced in the Legislative Assembly by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Uttarakhand is the first state in India to enact a uniform civil code, as most communities follow their own religious laws and customs in matters related to personal status law.

Article 44 of the Constitution of India states as a directive principle of state policy that the “[t]he State shall endeavour to secure the citizen a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India.” This a principle and guideline the state must keep in mind when it formulates policies and laws.

Main Features of the UCC

The bill is divided into four parts: Part 1 – Marriage and Divorce, Part 2 – Succession, Part 3 – Live-In Relationship, and Part 4 – Miscellaneous. Each part is subdivided further into chapters. Some of the major features are as follows:

  • Section 4 addresses conditions of marriage, one of which is that “neither party has a spouse living at the time of the marriage,” and requires a marriage age of 21 for a man and 18 for a woman — effectively abolishing polygamy and child marriage. The code also requires compulsory registration of marriages within 60 days.
  • Under section 25, both parties are granted an equal right to petition the court to dissolve the marriage through a decree of divorce, and divorce can occur only through court proceedings.
  • Section 29 emphasizes that marriages can be dissolved only under the provisions of the code, “notwithstanding any usage, custom, tradition, [or] personal law of any party to the marriage.”

Additionally, the code recognizes “live-in relationships,” which are defined as a relationship “in the nature of marriage” between a man and a woman who cohabit in a shared household. The law also requires these relationships to be registered within a month and sets criminal punishments for failure of the parties to register the relationship.

The code also regulates intestate succession and testamentary succession and wills. It divides intestate succession into Class 1 and Class 2 heirs and lists them in Schedule 2 of the law. Class 1 heirs are the immediate family members of the deceased, including spouse, children, parents, and spouses of predeceased children, who are given preference in the distribution of shares. In the absence of Class 1 heirs, shares are distributed to Class 2 heirs, and then to other relatives. In the absence of heirs, the government takes the estate, subject to obligations and liabilities to which an heir would have been subject. The law does not distinguish between self-acquired property and ancestral property (undivided property “inherited by a person up to “four generation[s] of male lineage” — from a person’s father, grandfather, or great-grandfather.

Reaction to the Adoption of the Law

Uttarkhand’s Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said the new law’s aim is “equality, uniformity, and equal rights” and that “[t]he UCC will mainly remove the discrimination against women.” He also said that “[t]he new legislation is not against any religion or community, but will bring uniformity in the society.”

However, the bill has come under criticism from opposition parties as well as religious minority and women’s rights organizations. The opposition stated that the bill was aimed at “extracting political mileage” ahead of national elections in April-May 2024 and accused the government of rushing the passage, as the draft should have been sent to a select committee for review before a final vote. According to the Associated Press, Yashpal Arya, an opposition Congress party lawmaker said that “[t]his is a nefarious political design to drive a wedge in the society on religious lines.”

Time reports that Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading Muslim organization of religious scholars, said that “[w]e cannot accept any law that is against Sharia because a Muslim can compromise with everything, but he or she can never compromise on Sharia and religion.” Women’s rights and legal experts also expressed concern over the requirement to register live-in relationships as “moral policing” and as an “invasion of privacy.” A statement from Uttarkhand women’s rights organizations stated:

While seemingly being uniform across religions, the Bill is actually 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. Moral policing measures have been introduced in this regard. What is shocking is that this law is applicable even to those living outside Uttarakhand, apart from being applicable on all residents of the state including those who do not have a domicile.

Tariq Ahmad, Law Library of Congress
March 22, 2024

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