The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The civility of a uniform civil code could be defined in many ways. Ms Shabana Azmiís prescription for it assumes the principle of gender justice, envisaging an order of civility sadly lacking in the Indian system. On the face of it, the requirement that a uniform code should be gender-sensitive seems to invoke bias. Uniformity would appear to mean a lack of excessive sensitivity in one sphere alone, or equal sensitivity in all spheres. But Ms Azmiís suggestion springs from clear-eyed realism, from the knowledge that personal laws are, almost without exception, disadvantageous to women. Religion, even one that worships the female deity as the source of positive power, is a male-ordered system, and any social system structured on the basis of personal laws devalues womenís rights and status. Although this is certainly not the only reason that women suffer in Indian society, it is part of the cause. Also, ancient personal laws, even when no longer applied, feed into belief systems and create assumptions that are passed on from generation to generation. The code book of civil law in India, however, is in large part forward-looking, although paternalism often undermines the ideal of equality between genders. In this context, gender-sensitiveness would serve to make the civil code truly uniform.

But Ms Azmiís argument assumes that a UCC would have to take into account the existing personal laws. Ms Azmi suggests that it take the best from each. Each has something to offer and something to obliterate. Her argument is made with an eye to the politics of the UCC, since the minority communities are worried that the new civil code would turn out to be an imposition of the majority Hindu law on other communities. The need for a UCC is now urgent, yet such fears cannot be wished away. But beginning with the personal laws as base would be to limit the possibilities of a truly just and forward-looking UCC. Also, there is a real contradiction in this. The basis of all personal law is religious, while a civil code is by definition secular. It is for the government to assure minority communities of its good faith, so that the UCC is not limited by politic references to the personal laws.

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