More than gender justice, Uttarakhand’s UCC is about moral policing - Hindustan Times

More than gender justice, Uttarakhand’s Uniform Civil Code is about moral policing

Feb 11, 2024 11:03 AM IST

A uniform legal marriageable age, 18 for women and 21 for men, now applies to all.

Amid chants of Jai Shri Ram, Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami introduced his state’s uniform civil code (UCC) bill in the state assembly on Tuesday.

Dehradun: Members of Uttarakhand Numainda Group protest against the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) bill during a special session of Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly, in Dehradun, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (PTI)
Dehradun: Members of Uttarakhand Numainda Group protest against the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) bill during a special session of Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly, in Dehradun, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (PTI)

It took just one day for the bill to be passed by a voice vote. The president’s signature is all that remains to make Uttarakhand the first state in post-Independent India to have one law for residents in matters concerning marriage, divorce (and maintenance), adoption and inheritance. Citizens in Uttarakhand will no longer be allowed to follow the practices of their personal, religious laws.

Officially, gender justice is the motive behind such a move. So, no more polygamy and goodbye to the pernicious practice of halala that requires the consummation of an intervening marriage before a divorced couple can marry again.

A uniform legal marriageable age, 18 for women and 21 for men, now applies to all.

A regressive move

There is one clause that is cause for deep concern: Live-in relationships [sic] must be registered with a registrar who has the power to investigate the relationship and summon either partner or anyone they choose for more information. The registrar must also inform the local police station of the presence of such a couple.

Failure to register, or even providing wrong information, carries a jail term of up to six months plus a fine. Nothing is stated about providing couples with protection in cases where their own families are opposed to the relationship. At a time when the Allahabad high court just last week refused to provide protection orders to eight interfaith couples, there’s a suspicion that behind the clause is an impetus to preserve the status quo of marriage and family.

The clause is hugely problematic for at least three reasons.

First, it erodes the autonomy of adult women who, under the Constitution, have the freedom to choose their own partners. They do not require either parental consent or the state’s permission to do so.

Indeed women are, in theory at least, free to marry whoever they want once they are 18. But in at least six BJP-ruled states, including Uttarakhand, there are laws that on the ground make it impossible for interfaith couples to marry. These anti-conversion laws, currently under legal challenge in the Supreme Court, are premised on the unproven conspiracy theory that wily Muslim men entrap gullible Hindu women into marriage with the ulterior motive of getting them to convert. In Parliament, the minister of state for home has conceded there is no evidence of this theory. And the country’s National Investigation Agency tasked with unearthing it in Kerala also failed to come up with proof.

And yet, that did not stop Maharashtra from setting up a committee to track not just interfaith but also inter-caste marriages in December 2022. Minister of women and child development Mangal Prabhat Lodha made the astounding claim that there were 100,000 cases of love jihad in the state. However, not one of these presented themselves to be examined in the three times that the committee met between December 2022 and October 2023.

The disproportionate anxiety over interfaith and inter-caste relationships, including live-in relationships, betrays the state’s inherently paternalistic attitude towards adult women citizens. This is not furthering the cause of gender justice but increasing the grip of institutionalised patriarchy around women’s throats.

Second, the UCC goes against the grain of past judicial pronouncements, including on privacy and on consensual adult sexual relationships. Even laws passed by Parliament, the Domestic Violence law, for instance, have recognised relationships “in the nature of marriage”. Children born out of such relationships have legal rights and status. Far from taking a rights-based momentum forward—the UCC could have, for instance, recognised civil partnerships between same-sex couples—it restricts itself to being a chowkidar.

Slippery slope

There’s a third problem that might perhaps be the most insidious. What happens in Uttarakhand need not stay in Uttarakhand, particularly if the BJP comes back to power later in the year.

A common civil code has been the party’s core ideological objective, along with the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. So far, the party has achieved two of its objectives.

Uttarakhand could well become the laboratory for a larger UCC, in which case the state’s assumption of locus parentis comes dangerously close to vigilantism.

Sadly, it’s a vigilantism that finds favour with large sections of the population in a country where 93% of modern Indians still have marriages arranged in accordance with faith and caste—and where a 2021 Pew Survey showed a majority of those interviewed disapproved of interfaith marriage.

Concerns about the state’s presence in the bedrooms of its citizens have been voiced selectively. For instance, on the issue of criminalising marital rape, the patriarchs say this will result in too much intrusion. Yet, the same patriarchs have no quarrel with the state monitoring who is cohabitating with whom.

So, you have a contradictory situation: In modern India it’s ok to rape your wife, but it’s not ok to marry, or live with, the person you love.

[Also read Utkarsh Anand on the provisions of the UCC]

The following article is an excerpt from Namita Bhandare’s Mind the Gap. Read the rest of the newsletter here.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal.

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