Getting personal

BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Party President Rajnath Singh C and senior leader Lal Krishna Advani release the party's election manifesto in New Delhi. (PTI) BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Party President Rajnath Singh C and senior leader Lal Krishna Advani released the party's election manifesto in New Delhi. (PTI)

Once again, as in 1998, the BJP’s election manifesto talks of a uniform civil code. The one in 1998 had said that the Law Commission would be asked to formulate such a code, but in the six years of its rule, the party made no such reference to the commission. This time, it simply says that the party “reiterates its stand to draft a uniform civil code”. What strategy, if at all, will be adopted if the party comes to power again is anybody’s guess.

Despite the Constitution’s call for a uniform civil code, the system of community-specific personal laws remains the order of the day. Muslims, Christians and Parsis have their respective personal laws. And what is inaccurately called “Hindu law” is actually the personal law, codified and refomed, of four communities —  Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. This system of diverse personal laws has enjoyed state protection from the earliest years of the post-Constitution era. In 1954, Parliament had enacted a secular matrimonial law, the Special Marriage Act, but it was soon followed by a separate Hindu Marriage Act.

A Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act was superimposed on the old Guardians and Wards Act of 1890. An Indian Succession Act had been in force since 1925 but a Hindu Succession Act was enacted in 1956. Fiscal and agrarian laws continued to extend to Hindu undivided families, and special concessions were not available to such families among other communities.

There have been instances of setting the clock back. The Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850, ruling that conversion by a legal heir would not disqualify him from getting his share by inheritance, was tampered with by the Hindu Succession Act, which laid down that children born to an heir after his conversion would not get a share unless they reconverted to Hinduism.

The Special Marriage Act had extended the secular Indian Succession Act to all those marrying under its provisions. An amendment made in 1976 ruled that this would not be the norm if both parties to a civil marriage were Hindu —  in that case they would continue to be governed by the Hindu law of succession. Clearly, there has been from the very beginning an undeclared state policy of keeping the constitutional goal of a uniform civil code in perpetual abeyance, and of not only letting the system of separate personal laws continue, but also of strengthening it through discriminatory legislation favouring particular communities.

The 2014 BJP manifesto asserts that “there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a uniform civil code”. The four Hindu law acts of 1955-56, which many see as a model for …continued »