Google Uniform Civil Code right now and your screen will be full of non-Indian epaper sites telling you about Triple Talaq, Polygamy and how Muslims don’t want the UCC. Here’s the shocker though – Muslim women are not the most oppressed group in India! In fact, believe it or not, before the regressive change in legislature after the Shah Bano case, by the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress government, Muslim women at that point had equal or better rights compared to Hindu women in many aspects.
This has never been the case with Christian women though. The laws for Christian women in India are so regressive as to be outright medieval, which is not surprising because most were coined in or before 1925!
Before one goes into details though, a quick note on why property rights are the most important part of gender equality:
Not only for humans, even in the case of animals, it is well-established that whoever owns the territory, calls the shots there. Tigers don’t have gender-equality issues because both males and females have their own, well-defined territories. This is also why a large Great Dane won’t walk into a tiny Pomeranian’s compound because if it did,one would instantly see the latter’s display of self-confidence, aggression and consequently, respect for the Pomeranian’s rights and equality.
Equality is not so much the result of size or who is stronger/ weaker as it is about owning property (i.e. a safe place to go back to) and having access to a food supply (which translates to economic independence in the case of humans).
This is not gender dependent in any way. The idea that equality comes from property-ownership and economic independence, is the reason behind the laws in countries all over the world that distributed land from zamindars to tenants, English landlords to common farmers and white colonialists to black former slaves. So, a good measure of equality based on gender, race, religion, etc., is to look at what percentage of the population a group is vs. what percentage of land is owned by that group. In India, women are 49% of the population and own between 20 to 35% of the land. This is a bit bleak in itself but it gets worse when one realises that not all communities are equally backward in their treatment of women.
So let’s go back to why we need the UCC. We need it because any talk about equality is meaningless if we don’t ensure everyone has an equal right to property. This is where Christian women in India get a shockingly bad deal.
Hindu women (and this includes Sikhs, Jain, Buddhists, etc.) were entitled to half of what their brothers got according to the 1956 succession act, which may account for why property holdings of women are approximately half of what they ought to be. This changed in 2005 (with most of the groundwork done by the Vajpayee government) to ensure Hindu women automatically inherit an equal share of their parents’ property. Muslim women are entitled to a share of their ancestral property by the Quran itself, so any personal laws would still take this into account (despite attempts to take away these by the government in the 1980s).
Christian women on the other hand were governed first by some laws made in 1892 and later (in great legal breakthroughs in 1986 &2014) by laws made in 1925! This law says that a daughter doesn’t have to be given a share in her father’s property if she has been paid ‘sthreedhan’ (read dowry as introduced by colonialists) of Rs. 5000. This was a reasonable amount of money in 1925 when a gram of gold cost Rs. 1.88, so 5000 rupees then is equal to 78 lakh rupees now. Also, by this law, a wife inherits only 1/3rd of her deceased husband’s property if there are children (and 1/2 if there are no children but the man has brothers) and even this is controlled by her sons, while a father can easily make a will giving all his property (even ancestral) only to the sons. Even if a will has not been made, a daughter still has to go to court to claim her share as it is not automatically given as in the case of Hindus and Muslims.
Combine this with the fact that streedhan was legally assumed to be in the control of the husband or father-in-law, that unlike Hindu and Muslim women, Indian Christian women do not have a birthright to live in their parent’s home (especially after marriage), that they have to wait 2 full years after filing papers to start divorce proceedings, that requirements for a Christian woman to get a divorce are ridiculously difficult, that children born outside a marriage are not recognised even if the parents are long-term partners, that abortions and contraception are strongly discouraged, and one sees a horrific trampling of almost all the constitutionally-guaranteed human rights of Christian women in India.
These laws come from colonial times when the main aim was to keep a population down, prevent them from questioning the government and prevent growth and development in society so that one always had access to what amounts to slave labour. The discriminatory property laws for Christian women in India, result in most of them living in slave-like conditions. This has to change and it has to change now!
There is an unnatural focus on Muslim women’s marital rights because of the main-stream media’s jaundiced view. The outdated and colonial laws governing Christians in India completely deprive many Indians of the benefits of progress and freedom. If you don’t support the UCC, you contribute towards the misery of all these generations of women.
Like someone famously said, “the only thing necessary for the rise of evil, is for the good people to do nothing”. So don’t do nothing. Fill in the questionnaire by the Law Commission here http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/questionnaire.pdf and make your voice heard for equality, human rights and the development of all Indians.