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An Indian state led by the Hindu-nationalist party introduced a new uniform civil code on private matters including marriage, banning polygamy for Muslims, and forcing unmarried couples to register before moving in together, the Washington Post reported.
India’s 1.4-billion population comprises 80 percent Hindus and 14 percent Muslims. So far, each religion has had its own rules on marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. Under customary law, Muslim men can marry up to four wives simultaneously and demand instant divorce by saying “talaq” three times.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long argued that these different laws should be replaced with a uniform civil code applicable to all Indians. The northern state of Uttarakhand, governed by the BJP, became the first state to pass such a code. Two other states are preparing similar legislation, and the BJP is expected to propose a federal version after this spring’s national election, the Associated Press wrote.
The new code bans polygamy and sets the same minimal age for marriage across all faiths – 21 for men and 18 for women.
Many Indians, regardless of their politics, have upheld the need for a progressive, egalitarian code. Some Muslim women welcomed the ban on polygamy, Reuters reported. Nonetheless, Uttarakhand’s uniform code was described as an attempt by Modi and his party to further crack down on the rights of minorities. It was criticized for its targeting of Muslims, as some other minority communities were allowed to preserve their customs.
One element of the new code forces unmarried couples to register for a certificate before moving in together, one that officials can deny. So-called “live-in couples” failing to comply with the law face a six-month jail sentence or a $300 fine.
This measure has created a furor with analysts and activists denouncing the law’s provision that neighbors can tell on couples they suspect of living together without a certificate. Researcher Mary E. John told the Post, “Women are the first to get affected” by the increased surveillance.
Uniform civil codes have been central to the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist agenda. After Uttarakhand’s chief minister introduced it in the state legislature amid chants to the glory of the Hindu god Rama, one veteran columnist likened the bill to Afghanistan’s Taliban.