New Delhi: In its nine years in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has consistently promised that it will bring in a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – and yet failed to actually pass a law to that effect.
The clamour for a UCC, buoyed by the Law Commission’s notification last month seeking fresh views and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong push at a rally in Bhopal last week, has once again renewed the debate around the contentious issue.
A look at the BJP’s election manifestos reveals that the promise of a UCC has been a mainstay in the party’s poll pronouncements in successive elections from 1996 to 2019.
Despite two successive stints in power at the Centre with an overriding majority, the party has failed to deliver its promise of a UCC. This even as it has delivered other long-pledged promises like the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
How BJP poll manifestos promised UCC
According to a paper on the BJP’s e-library titled “Bharatiya Janata Party and the Uniform Civil Code”, the UCC first made an appearance in the party’s election manifesto in 1996.
“Successive Election Manifestoes of the Party from 1996 onwards make direct reference to the Uniform Civil Code in its quest to ensure gender equality,” it says.
In the 1996 manifesto, the UCC is mentioned under the heading “Nari Shakti: Towards Empowerment”.
It also finds mention under the section “An agenda for change” where it says: “The BJP is committed to Article 44 of the Constitution. We will adopt a Uniform Civil Code which will be applicable to every community and foster a common Bharatiya identity, apart from ensuring gender equality. Regressive personal laws will cease to have legal validity.”
In the 1998 manifesto, the UCC once again finds mention under the section titled “Nari Shakti: Empowerment of Women”. This time the party also promised to entrust the Law Commission with the task to formulate a Uniform Civil Code “based on the progressive practices from all traditions”.
In the 2004 election manifesto the UCC first finds mention under the section “Our Basic Mission and Commitments” as “Consensus over Uniform Civil Code”.
“The BJP believes that all laws, including personal laws, must be in accordance with the guarantees available to all citizens under the Indian Constitution.
“The BJP views Uniform Civil Code primarily as an instrument to promote gender justice. We believe that social and political consensus has to be evolved before its enactment,” it said.
It also promises a UCC under the section on Nari Shakti to ensure gender equality and end the legal validity of “regressive personal laws”.
The same manifesto promises a commission to examine all personal laws in order to come to a consensus on a UCC.
In its 2009 manifesto, the BJP once again promised to set up a commission to draft a UCC.
“The BJP, as a first step towards this constitutionally mandated direction, will set up a Commission to draft a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times,” it said.
In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP pushed the idea of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas for the first time, and reiterated the need for a UCC for gender justice.
“BJP believes that there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, which protects the rights of all women, and the BJP reiterates its stand to draft a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonizing them with the modern times,” it said.
The exact same wording for the promise and need for the UCC is also found in the 2019 election manifesto under the Cultural Heritage section.
According to opposition parties, the fact that the UCC continues to feature in the BJP’s poll manifestos – with no signs of the party delivering on the promise – shows that the BJP is only using this as electoral rhetoric ahead of the 2024 general elections.
“Modiji was thinking that I can fool the people like I did in 2019 but the Karnataka elections have shown him the mirror,” said Gourav Vallabh, national spokesperson, Congress, to The Wire.
“Modiji has input from their internal surveys from the RSS as well as BJP that they will have less than 50 seats in upcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and Congress will have 75+ seats in Chhattisgarh. So he is using the last weapon: the politics of polarisation, politics of diversion. Don’t ask me about unemployment, I will keep talking about UCC.”
According to DMK spokesperson Manuraj Shunmugasundaram, the fact that despite its majority in parliament and continued promises in election manifestos, BJP has shied away from bringing a law, “itself shows that they are not truly committed to this”.
“The PM has been the PM for nine years, he could have at any time instructed his Cabinet and passed a resolution to bring it in Parliament in 9 years. There is no requirement that a Law Commission report is necessary. If that is so, where is the law commission report on CAA [the Citizenship (Amendment) Act], demonetisation or (scrapping) Article 370?” he said to The Wire.
“Where they want to legislate, they do it overnight. All of this is a smokescreen to polarise and the fact is BJP has not shown real intent in the last nine years nor between 1999-2004.”
The BJP’s pitch for the UCC has, however, raised questions about opposition unity, just days after the show of strength in Patna where leaders of 16 non-BJP parties vowed to fight unitedly in 2024.
At least two parties that attended the Patna meeting have offered qualified support to a UCC.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Sandeep Pathak said to the Press Trust of India on June 28 that the party “supports UCC in principle”.
Speaking to The Wire, an AAP leader who did not wish to be named said that “the in-principle support is the idea that we should move towards having equality in society and women should have rights irrespective of religion”.
“But without seeing the framework or what they come up with it is difficult to provide unconditional support,” the leader said.
Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) leader Sanjay Raut said to The Hindu that the party has historically supported a UCC but needs to see the fine print to take a position.
The Wire has also reached out to Raut but has not received a response.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) refused to comment when The Wire reached out asking for a response on the party’s position.
However, according to the DMK, differences around the UCC are unlikely to affect opposition unity for 2024.
“We don’t expect all parties to align on all issues whether it is CAA or 370 or UCC. What we have done is come together on a common secular constitutional platform and I think by and large all parties have weighed their options and no one went to Patna without thinking of the implications of coming together for the next one year,” said Shunmugasundaram.
“It was not an exhibition event where junior leaders went but top leaders, chief ministers and party presidents were there themselves. There is no particular prickly thorn and this unity transcends minor policy issues.”
“Timing is right”
The BJP has denied the charge that the renewed push for the UCC is mere election rhetoric.
“They (opposition) said the same thing about (revoking) Article 370 also, but it has been done. We are serious about our promises and we don’t make promises for the heck of it, as they are important issues that concern the nation,” said R.P. Singh, national spokesperson, BJP, to The Wire.
Singh added that various state governments along with the Law Commission’s new call for inputs have set the wheels in motion for the UCC.
“This is not a new issue that we have been raising. Even during state elections like Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh we promised to bring UCC. So this has been on the agenda.
“Our state governments have also started working on it and they are bringing the draft bill also now and the time is right that there should be one law in the country. I don’t see any special push happening. It was part of the manifesto and it has to be fulfilled now that the election is around the corner.
“We committed to UCC, Ram Mandir and 370 and economic growth. It is a poll promise that has to be fulfilled.
“Law commission is going to draft a proposal after compiling the inputs that they get. I am told they have already got 8 lakh suggestions. Whatever time it takes in terms of parliamentary procedures, we cannot cut short that.
“There is already a draft on Uttarakhand.”
“No party is in a position to bring UCC”
Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said that the reason why the BJP has not brought in any concrete measures to make the UCC a reality is that “no political party is in a position to bring in the UCC”.
“No political party is in a position to even come up with a draft of the UCC. Because of the lack of clarity on what the UCC actually is, it was not possible to have any law passed. Second, UCC is not a simple law to be passed.
“In order to have only one kind of universal law you have to deal not only with the Muslims but also with the tribal communities and there is a whole range of issues involved in it so BJP was not in a position intellectually as well as politically to deal with those issues. That is why they just raise it as political rhetoric but didn’t do anything substantial about it.”
Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that while UCC has been a longstanding demand of the BJP, there is a need to discuss it in today’s context.
“To begin with, a lot has changed since UCC was first debated in the Constituent Assembly.”
“What we need is a uniform justice code with best practices drawn from all the religions. Uniform, interpreted as uniformity and as a majoritarian ethic interpreted by the BJP will only generate a conflict between the social elites of Hindus and the Muslims.
“It may not become the kind of mass issue that is necessary to whip up emotions on either side of the religious divide. It may, at best, help BJP consolidate its support among the pretentiously progressive sections of urban middle classes.”
According to Ahmed, that the BJP will bring in some kind of UCC cannot be ignored.
“Indian politics, like competitive democratic politics, functions on certain dominant narratives and at the moment the dominant narrative is Hindutva driven nationalism. In this context one nation, one Constitution are the buzzwords and no political party is in a position to oppose this.
“In this framework if you adhere to that position it will help your Hindu voters to support you because you have presented UCC as Muslims have got some privileges and in order to reduce these privileges they should be covered under your law so that ambiguity will help BJP.
“On the other hand the non-BJP parties will say we are not taking any position on this without disturbing their equation with the Hindu voters.
“We cannot ignore the fact that at one point BJP will bring something but what that something will be we don’t know as no draft is available yet because legally the Law Commission is still collating inputs.”