The Indian government’s interest in ending the use of separate legal codes based on religion to deal with civil matters has drawn the ire of minority groups that are concerned that the move is an attack on freedom of religion. India’s various family laws allow people to have contracts and legal disputes decided in accordance with their religious beliefs, so long as these do not conflict with the country’s constitution. This allows, for example, Muslims to have issues such as inheritance decided in line with Shariah or Muslim traditions which weigh assets and inheritance rights differently from other faiths, or for Sikhs, Christians and others to marry or divorce according to their faiths.
But the Law Commission of India has opposed several aspects of these laws and previously became a target of ire for many Muslims when it proposed changes to Muslim divorce laws in 2018. That said, there is some legitimate criticism of the separate systems because, within the minority groups, the laws still take on a majoritarian appearance — just look at the differences among Muslim scholars and schools of thought on the terms and conditions involved in marriage and divorce, best illustrated by the long debate over ‘triple talaq’ before it was banned. This is why proponents of uniformity say the changes will actually benefit everyone.
It is also worth noting that while minority groups have been up in arms about potential changes, the Law Commission itself acknowledges that it “is neither necessary nor desirable at this stage” to introduce a uniform legal system and has only requested comments from stakeholders and the general public. Given the BJP government’s well-established record of forcing through anti-minority legislation on a whim, it is clear that the government is taking a softer approach on this issue. With that in mind, it may be worth it for religious groups to actually participate and try to influence rule changes — or limit change — instead of complaining from the outside.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2023.