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Indian Supreme Court Moves to Unify Civil Code - 2003-07-24

India's Supreme Court is recommending the civil legal code be made uniform throughout the country, eliminating allowances for diverse religious and cultural practices. The court says the move would help foster integration, but minority groups object, fearing these laws would infringe on their religious rights.

India's Supreme Court says all the country's billion-plus citizens should be bound by the same laws and wants lawmakers to implement a uniform civil code.

In non-binding comments this week, the highest court said common laws are necessary to further national integration, and remove contradictions based on religious ideologies.

The judges have reopened a decades-old sensitive debate in the country.

Current legal practices allow religious consideration to govern civil issues, including marriage, divorce and property rights.

For example, a Muslim man can have more than one wife, or divorce his wife without having to go to court. Catholics can only get divorced if one partner can prove the other committed adultery. Hindus have special inheritance laws.

India's ruling Hindu nationalist party is championing the change, saying common laws are necessary in a secular, democratic country. But the party does not have the votes to pass it through Parliament.

The country's most prominent religious minorities, Muslims and Christians, say a uniform code is an infringement on their rights.

Qasim Rasool Ilyas is spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He says the Muslim community, which makes up about 12 percent of the population, will oppose "tooth and nail" any effort to implement common laws.

Mr. Ilyas said, "Personal laws are the personal affairs of a person, as well as the community. If I follow my own personal law, which is sacred law in my eyes, which is based on the Koran, it does not affect other communities. So how it is against the national interest of the country, we don't know."

Christians say the government should forge a consensus before making radical changes. Dominic Emmanuel, with the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, says common law could cause more conflicts especially on issues like abortion.

"The Indian population is always on an exploding side, and the government is unable to control it, and comes up with the legislation tomorrow that abortion should be legalized, of course the option is always open for those who want it or don't want it but, the Christian and Muslim community I'm sure are going to oppose it, because it goes basically against the fundamental belief of natural law," Mr. Emmanuel said.

The country's main opposition Congress Party says that common laws may be difficult to implement in a highly diverse country. Political analysts say the debate is likely to intensify as India prepares for a general election next year.