Scrutinizing Uttarakhand's UCC Bill and its Implications
If you are a man or a woman, and are in a “live-in” relationship or planning to be in one in the northern India’s hill state of Uttarakhand, some challenges may be coming your way.
On February 6, 2024, the Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly tabled a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) bill, with codes for marriage, divorce, land, property, and inheritance laws for all citizens irrespective of their religion. It will not apply to tribal communities. The bill was passed by the state Assembly on February 7 and will become law when the state governor gives his assent.
The UCC was a key Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto promise in the 2022 elections. In preparation for the bill, the Uttarakhand government created a special panel, which produced a 740-page draft after it sought and collected over 2.5 lakh suggestions -- written and online, held several public forums and engaged with over 60,000 people -- as it prepared the bill.
The UCC’s mandate was to formulate and implement personal laws that are applicable to all citizens regardless of religion, gender and sexual orientation. At present, personal laws of various religious communities are governed by scriptures and are distinguished from public law covering marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and maintenance. While Article 25-28 of the Constitution of India guarantees religious freedom to Indian citizens and allows religious groups to maintain their own affairs, Article 44 of the Constitution expects the Indian State to apply the Directive Principles and common law for all citizens while formulating national policies.
The proposed bill proposes a complete ban on polygamy and child marriage; a common marriageable age for girls across all faiths and standard procedures for divorce; equal property rights for sons and daughters; elimination of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children; equal property rights after death and inclusion of adopted and biological children; and legitimacy of a child born of a “live-in” relationship.
A retrograde proposal is with regard to “live-in” relationships, where men and women agree to live together without marriage. According to the UCC proposal, it would be obligatory for partners in such a relationship to submit a statement to the registrar in their jurisdiction. The registrar would then conduct a “summary inquiry” to ensure that the relationship does not fall under any of the categories mentioned under Section 380, where at least one person is a minor, is already married or in a “live-in” relationship. Those not submitting the statement would be imprisoned up to three months or fined up to Rs 10,000, or both. If the relationship is terminated, the registrar would also have to be informed with a statement. In cases of abandonment, the woman in a “live-in” relationship can claim maintenance from her partner through a competent court.
This is neither necessary nor desirable. It is a burden on the already incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy and assumes that women cannot take care of themselves financially, should the relationship be dissolved. A “live-in” relationship assumes equality between the two partners, unlike arranged marriages where men are expected to be the bread-winners and protectors of women.
The state claims that the reported abuse of women in such “live-in” relationships, or the aftermath of men abandoning them, has prompted the proposal of such mechanisms. However, in “live-in” relationships, two people, independently and willingly, come together because they want to and are not ready to marry. If the intent is to protect women in these relationships, the proposed measures will not serve the purpose and when these relationships fall apart, they can and will be dissolved, without the assistance of the State. Whenever the State has been brought in, the record of resolutions has not been that great.
So, it would seem that if women (and thereby men) want the State to protect them from abuse in relationships, and they have to give up their privacy and look to the State and the law to protect them, knowing their deficiencies and shortfalls. Despite legislation such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, incidents of violence abound. The ecosystem to implement the legislation is not in place, and the same would happen in the case of the UCC proposal for live-in relationships.
So, what is needed instead? Recognising that Indian society and the institution of marriage and relationships is changing, there must be more education and information in schools, colleges, workplaces and the public sphere about relationships.
Disputes in intimate relationships occur due to unrealistic expectations of partners or changes in needs during the course of the relationship. When this happens, there is conflict and relationships break down, as people do not have the tools to navigate conflict. Instead of turning to the law, which usually isn’t helpful in situations of such conflict, more counselling and conflict resolution services could be offered. While therapists and conflict resolution services exist, they are by far and few between and people are reluctant to consult them, until it becomes too late and the relationship has broken down irretrievably.
The UCC proposals on “live-in” relationships need to be rooted in the present-day realities of Indian society, that is a complicated and diverse one. It is not possible to have one foot in the previous centuries where personal lives were ruled by the scriptures and the other foot in this century, where people want to exercise free will. Creating policies that penalise or prevent people from meaningful relationships will not be helpful. And nor is it the responsibility of the State.