Modi weighs replacing India's religion-based laws before polls

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's proposal is seen by critics as a reflection of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration is weighing the political costs of replacing India's religion-based marriage and inheritance laws with a uniform civil code ahead of national elections in 2024, according to people involved in the plan, a move that risks alienating a broad spectrum of voters.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has begun the process to implement uniform civil laws in the tiny hill state of Uttarakhand where it dominates the local legislature, said the people who declined to be named as they are not authorised to speak to the media.

The Hindu nationalist party also plans to adopt the laws in a few states, particularly in parts of the remote northeast to gauge any backlash before a nationwide roll-out, the people said.

Successive governments since independence have stayed away from amending these religious and customary laws for fear it will anger voters belonging to the Hindu majority as well as the minority Christians and Muslims because of the perceived clash with their fundamental right to practice their faith.

The proposal is seen by critics as a reflection of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and has become a part of the party's plan to push its Hindu nationalist agenda. It has taken a series of steps targeting the minority population since Mr Modi extended his power with a stronger mandate in 2019.

Mr Dhan Singh Rawat, a cabinet minister in Uttarakhand government, said the move is not directed toward any particular community and a panel headed by a judge will be formed prepare draft legislation. A spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment.

"Uttarakhand is the first experiment in our country and other states may follow after seeing the outcomes," said Mr Sunil Deodhar, a secretary of the BJP in New Delhi. "It is right time to bring uniform civil code in the country."

One such state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won a landslide victory in local polls last month, is also looking the civil code and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya told reporters last week that its implementation would bring prosperity to all.

Regressive laws

Currently, matters of marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance are governed by multiple religious and customary laws. The drafters of India's constitution more than seven decades ago had laid out that a uniform civil code should replace these often regressive and patriarchal laws.

The BJP's ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has kept its focus on developing a uniform civil code for decades. Drafting a new code has featured prominently in the BJP's election manifesto in the last two national elections and is a key Hindu agenda that has yet to be fully carried out.

The Hindu nationalist party has focused on changing Islamic laws like putting an end to polygamy and not looked at rectifying injustices meted out to Hindu women under their religious code such as the division of matrimonial assets and child support after divorce, said Ms Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai-based scholar of law and the founder of an organisation which provides legal services to women.

"What we need is uniformity of rights and not a uniform civil code. We have to concentrate on reforming the personal laws of each community and rid them of the patriarchal premises," she said. "Rather than focusing on improving the living standards of marginalized people, the BJP is using the demand for a uniform civil code as a weapon against Muslims."

Mr Modi's government ended special constitutional autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority region, and has started the construction of a Hindu temple in north India at a disputed site where a medieval mosque once stood.

Last month, a court in South India ruled schools and universities can bar Muslim female students from wearing a headscarf, following a month-long row.

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