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Modi’s party set to bring contentious common civil laws in India through states

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An Indian state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is set to introduce contentious new common personal laws that will apply across religions next week, a template other state officials say they will look to follow.

Jewellery is seen on a bride’s hand as she holds a purse during a mass marriage ceremony in which 51 Muslim couples took their wedding vows, in Mumbai, India, January 14, 2024. File picture: Reuters, Francis Mascarenha

By Krishn Kaushik, Rupam Jain and Saurabh Sharma

NEW DELHI – An Indian state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is set to introduce contentious new common personal laws that will apply across religions next week, a template other state officials say they will look to follow.

Currently, India’s Hindus, Muslims, Christians and large tribal populations can follow their own personal laws and customs, or an optional secular code, for marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance.

Framing a national common law has been one of the three core, decades-old promises of Modi’s Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). It has fulfilled the other two: building a fiercely contested grand Hindu temple, and removing the autonomy of the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The northern state of Uttarakhand, nestled in the Himalayan foothills, is expected to unveil a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) bill next week, officials said.

The move comes ahead of Modi’s bid to win a rare third term in general elections to be held by May, and may further help consolidate the Hindu vote, analysts say.

The UCC is a divisive issue, as many minority Muslims who criticise the BJP for its hardline Hindu-first image see it as interference with centuries-old Islamic practices, including polygamy and instant divorce.

Calling the UCC a “trial balloon” ahead of the elections, federal lawmaker and a prominent Muslim voice Asaduddin Owaisi said Hindu nationalists professed to like non-uniformity, except when it came to Muslims.

Although no draft of the UCC has been presented, BJP leaders have said it primarily has to do with modernising Muslim personal laws.

A committee set up in Uttarakhand in 2022 to draft the code will submit its work to the state government on Friday. It is likely be presented to the state’s legislative body next week, two officials said.

“Several state governments across India are looking at whether a uniform civil code could be implemented,” Nalin Kohli, a national BJP spokesperson said. “The systematic process to get uniform civil code in several states has begun.”

Uttarakhand’s chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, said on social media platform X that his ministers would study the draft and “start the process to make it into a bill and then an act”.

Modi’s government ended special privileges enjoyed by Kashmir in August 2019 and earlier this month unveiled a grand temple to Hindu deity Ram replacing a Mughal-era mosque razed by radical Hindu groups in 1992.

Personal laws can be legislated by both federal and state governments, and other BJP-ruled states have said they could use the Uttarakhand UCC draft as a template.

Earlier this month, BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam state, said: “I am waiting to see the UCC bill of Uttarakhand and once that is done, we will bring the same legislation” with some modifications.

Keshav Prasad Maurya, Deputy Chief Minister of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, told Reuters that “wherever the BJP is (in power) the possibility of bringing UCC has been and will always be there”, adding it will introduced “at the right time”.

– REUTERS

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