A number of clues suggest that the BJP-led government at the centre may be working on legislation to introduce a Uniform Civil Code. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s at a Bhopal event are being read alongside the fact that, almost two weeks ago, the 22nd Law Commission from stakeholders.
Even if the Law Commission’s consultation isn’t new, it’s part of indications that the BJP is finally firming up the political will to bring in a legislative bill on the UCC to Parliament.
In some ways, as this government’s term nears its end, this is one of the key three points of departure that the BJP would like to mark in India’s political realm. The first two came early in its second term – one by a legislative initiative, the other fortuitously through a judicial verdict. Both upended status quo-ist positions and heralded paradigm shifts on long-drawn questions.
The first was in August 2019, with the nullification of Article 370 that scrapped the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir. The second came three months later, with the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement on the Ayodhya dispute.
It’s ironic that such transformative moves came from a party that has been seen, even if not accurately, as part of the conservative stream in Indian politics. Normally, it’s a stream defined by unhurried processes and sceptical caution in the face of change. That’s not how events unfolded in the last few years.
It’s something that the Cambridge political historian Shruti Kapila alluded to a month after the BJP was voted to power in 2014. “In India today, conservatism has acquired a kind of revolutionary import, in that it is the byword of change,” . In doing so, she argued that unlike the past regime of privilege, the new political language was about “validating the new”.
The UCC can be seen as part of the triumvirate of core issues defining the political agenda of the BJP, as inherited by it from its Jan Sangh phase. In a way, all three issues – Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the Ayodhya temple, and the UCC – formed the intergenerational continuity running through party leaders of different eras.
But the issues were kept on the backburner for the most part when the party headed coalition governments at the centre in the 1990s. The lack of a comfortable majority meant compulsions of coalition politics which, in turn, did not give the BJP enough elbowroom to work on these issues. It was only after its 2014 landslide victory that it was in a position to bring its political will to these issues.
After J&K and Ayodhya, the UCC is the missing piece that the BJP may try to address, perhaps in a different political context and a different timeframe.
After all, the legislation to abrogate Article 370 came less than three months after the BJP was reelected with a strong majority in the 2019 poll. There was little possibility of anti-incumbency settling in as the government’s popularity had been so recently ascertained in the Lok Sabha poll. Moreover, issues around Article 370 had been woven into the nationalist framework of territorial integrity so it was difficult for other parties to be seen as opposing the move.
In the case of Ayodhya, the verdict was the culmination of long judicial proceedings in the highest court in the land. Despite this, the party’s political constituency was set to view it as the BJP being more proactive in pushing the cause of the historical grievances of the Hindu community.
The UCC has now made a late entry, so there will be much talk on its timing and political intent.
The BJP and others who view it through the same prism can always buttress the need for the UCC by citing Article 44 of the Indian constitution. It says, “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.” In its latest report, the Law Commission cited debates in the Constituent Assembly about the UCC and how leading voices like Dr Ambedkar had favoured the code, but a gradualist approach was adopted instead. Hence, it was left as a desirable objective for the future legislative body.
The Law Commission also cited judgements and observations made by the Supreme Court in favour of framing a common code. In this context, it recalled observations in the Ahmad Khan vs Shah Bano Begum case of 1985. In 2019, a division bench had said, “Despite the exhortations of this court in the case of Shah Bano in 1985, the government has done nothing to bring the Uniform Civil Code.”
Modi’s pitch this week also echoed comments made in an affidavit filed in the apex court by the law ministry some months ago. It said, “Citizens belonging to different religions and denominations following different property and matrimonial law is an affront to the nation’s unity.”
With the BJP giving enough clues on reviving the issue nine months before the 2024 election, it’s possible this might be a poll plank. If that’s the case, the UCC could be strategically used as a late propellant to mobilise its core voting groups. But unlike the other two issues addressed before, the UCC is a longer story to tell. It might be a sidetrack to the party’s other campaign themes, or an intermediate issue between a new term or even a new regime.
In either case, if it finds its way to legislation, the BJP can tick off the third in its trio of legacy issues – what its leaders called “core issues” over the decades.
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