At a time when there’s a growing chorus, and a debate, on the need to review personal laws and have a uniform civil code, as in Goa where a 155-year-old Portuguese-era law is still in force, the Ministry of Law and Justice is learnt to have conveyed to a parliamentary committee that review of such laws can be undertaken when a “sizeable majority” of the population seek amendment of the existing laws or a new law is enacted.
Even in the case of Goa, where the Portuguese Civil Code of 1867 continues, the Ministry is learnt to have pointed out to the committee that the original law must have undergone changes over the years, and if it requires review, it must be looked into.
The government, it is learnt, communicated its stance to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice which selected review of personal laws as a subject for examination during its 2021-22 tenure.
The committee, headed by BJP member Sushil Kumar Modi, has 28 members — 7 from Rajya Sabha and 21 from Lok Sabha.
It is learnt that the committee visited Goa on June 26 to study the common family law relating to marriage, divorce, succession etc., and applicable to all religious communities including Hindu, Muslim and Christian.
Goa’s Chief Secretary, the current and former Advocate Generals, representatives of civil society organisations were said to have briefed the committee on the state’s experience of implementing a uniform civil code related to family laws over the years.
Goa is the only state in India that has a uniform civil code regardless of religion, gender and cast. A former Portuguese colony, it inherited the Portuguese Civil Code, 1867 that is still applicable in the state even after it joined the Indian Union in 1961.
In other parts of the country, different personal laws are applicable to different religious communities. For instance, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is applicable to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 is applicable to matters related to Parsis, the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 for Christians and the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat Application), 1937 is applicable to Muslims in personal matters.
Article 44 of the Constitution – in Part IV which deals with Directive Principles of State Policy – states: “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”
The issue of the uniform civil code has been the subject of political debates and judicial scrutiny for a long time now and has figured in the election manifesto of the BJP.
For Parliament alone
The UCC has long been a BJP promise. Since family and succession laws come under the concurrent jurisdiction of the Centre and states, a state government can bring in a state law. But a uniform law across the country can only be enacted by Parliament.
In the Uttarakhand Assembly elections earlier this year, the BJP promised that if it is re-elected, it would enact a uniform civil code for the state. Soon after returning to power, the Pushkar Dhami government formed a five-member expert committee, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai. The committee held its first meeting this month.
Since family and succession laws are under the concurrent jurisdiction of the Centre and states, a state government can bring in a state law, but for a uniform law across the country, that can only be enacted by Parliament.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
The 28 members of the parliamentary committee represent 10 parties — BJP (11), Congress (4), TMC (3), DMK, TRS and Shiv Sena (2 each), and BSP, LJSP, TDP and YSRCP (1 each). They come from 16 states and Union Territories: Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.