Indigenous and tribal groups worry about loss of religious ethos over Uniform Civil Code

These communities worry the UCC will infringe on their constitutionally protected sociocultural practices and customary laws

By Monika
Published: Friday 11 August 2023
There are around 700 different tribal communities in the country, each with a different religion, culture, ethos and norms. Photo: CSE

The world celebrated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 to promote their rights, ethics and cultural diversity. At the same time, the Government in India is set to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in the country, which has been vehemently opposed by tribal communities across the country. 

President Droupadi Murmu is the first tribal person to hold the position in the country. About eight per cent of the Indian population is made up of people from around 700 tribal communities, according to the 2011 census. These tribal communities don’t have a common religion, culture, ethos or norms and their societies are very distinct from the majority religion, Hinduism. 

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But the proposed UCC is a legal framework that aims to replace personal laws based on religious and cultural practices with a single set of uniform laws applicable to all citizens of a country, regardless of their religion or community. 

Its primary objective is to establish uniformity in civil laws related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and other personal matters that are currently governed by separate laws for different religious communities. 

The supporters of the framework believe it is essential to establish gender equality, rights and social justice whereas opponents argue it would undermine the rich cultural diversity and plurality of a nation like India, which is home to vastly diverse populations. 

UCC in Indian Constitution

The UCC has been a subject of controversy in India since Independence. Given its critical nature, prevailing circumstances and understanding of the need to respect religious diversity and avoid causing communal tensions at the time of drafting the constitution, the decision to implement the UCC was left to the discretion of the government. 

The idea of a UCC was included in Article 44 of the directive principles of state policy in the Indian Constitution. This Article stated: 

The State shall endeavour to secure the citizen a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India

India is a land of diverse religious groups, each with its own personal laws and customs related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and other civil matters. 

However, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is currently in office at the Centre, 15 Indian states and one Union territory, is determined to implement the UCC, intending to supplant individual, familial and religious regulations with a uniform legal framework. 

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India’s tribal heritage

Indigenous peoples or tribal communities constitute 8.6 per cent of the overall population of India and are dispersed across the country including Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and other northeastern states. There are over 700 unique languages spoken by Indian indigenous tribes, belonging to several language groups such as Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman. 

Indigenous peoples are found throughout India, including the northeastern provinces, central Indian states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

To protect this ethnic diversity within the country, Articles 371A and 371 G have been mentioned in the constitution as a special state act for Nagaland and Mizoram. The people of these communities are often subjected to discrimination, marginalisation and denial of their fundamental rights.

Tribal concerns

Amidst the UCC onboard, indigenous tribal populations, celebrated for their rich diversity and unique traits, find themselves obliged to adhere to standardised civil codes even in their personal affairs. Within this context, concerns arise among tribal and indigenous communities regarding the prospective repercussions of UCC implementation in India. 

Their main worry is that the UCC will infringe on their constitutionally protected sociocultural practices and customary laws. There’s a growing apprehension that they might be assimilated into the broader citizenry, risking the erosion of their religious multiplicity and cultural essence beneath the dominant practices of the majority religion.

Consequently, they grapple with the fear of losing their distinct identities within the nation. 

Along with this, tribal communities also bear some distinct sort of social structure, opposing UCC, Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma stated, “We (Meghalaya) are a matrilineal society. That is what our strength has been and that is what our culture has been. Now that cannot be changed”. 

These communities, sidelined and marginalised for long, fear a lack of representation. The sudden imposition of a UCC could lead to confusion and social upheaval within tribal communities. Customary laws are deeply ingrained in their way of life and an abrupt transition to a uniform code might create resistance and unrest.

The Naga People’s Front (NPF) claimed the UCC is “betraying the hope and trust of minorities, particularly tribal communities, for whom constitutional provisions such as Article 371(A) or the Sixth Schedule have been provided to protect and promote ‘our custom, values and practices, things which have given us identity, worth, belongingness and purpose.”

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Government interventions required

In a nutshell, government interventions are needed to combat these concerns. There are many ways in which the related concerns of tribal communities caused by UCC can be addressed more inclusively, such as by offering special aid and rights, the government can address the growing fear of tribes or indigenous populations.

The government should also engage in open and inclusive consultations with tribal communities, tribal leaders and representatives to understand their concerns, aspirations and specific needs related to the implementation of a UCC. Their perspectives should be incorporated into the decision-making process so they can be well represented.

Governments could also enhance and secure tribal cultural diversity by promoting their ethos, norms, values and religious practices through exhibition at various government levels expressing India’s rich plurality and heterogeneity. 

Monika is Research Scholar at Indian Institute of Technology Indore and a Visiting PhD Student at Boston University Massachusetts, USA

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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