For about three weeks now, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has ignited a debate around the diversity of the country that exists not just among its people but also in its laws.
The Law Commission on Friday extended the deadline for public submissions on the UCC till July 28 due to an overwhelming response. So far, the commission has received over 27 lakh replies through emails, and the commission is likely to begin nation-wide public consultations and share a detailed questionnaire with citizens on the issue, sources told NDTV.
Inheritance, adoption, marriage and divorce have been largely governed by personal laws in the country. Even the Congress and other opposition parties have been treading carefully on UCC. They have not opposed reforms in personal laws such as equality of inheritance, but held that a UCC can be an assault on the cultural identity of Muslims and diversity in traditions.
Inheritance has been a sticking point when it comes to uniformity, and the rights of women regarding inheritance have differed based on religion in India. Inheritance or succession is anyway an emotive matter in Indian families.
Every religion follows its own personal law for property devolution. Not only different religious groups, but even subgroups have their own local customs and norms with their property rights. Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain follow a code of property codified under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, while Christians follow another code and Muslims have not codified their property rights.
Under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, Hindu women have equal rights to inherit property from their parents and have the same entitlement as Hindu men. But implementation differs, specifically when it comes to agricultural land, and while courts have also intervened many times to implement equal share for women in parental property, a lot of it has to do with societal norms that lead to many women not even claiming their property rights, say experts.
Muslim women, governed by the Muslim Personal Law, are entitled to a share of their husband’s property depending on the presence of children, but daughters get a share less than sons. Now, the UCC aims to enforce a uniform legal framework in respect of all such facets, for all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion.
Mayank Mohanka, taxation expert and founder-director at taxaaram.com, told NDTV the biggest challenge for framers of the UCC when it comes to inheritance will be the framing of a unified code for such diverse and varied laws of inheritance, which also imbibes within itself the sanctity of the respective personal laws.
According to the Hindu Succession Act, he said, if a man leaves behind property, it is primarily passed on to his “Class I” heirs (the widow, children and mother) in equal share. In their absence, “Class II” heirs (father, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, brother, sister and other relatives) can claim the property. But the rules change when the owner is a Hindu woman and when she dies without a will, the assets get passed on to her husband and children in equal proportion.
If none of them are present, the property will go to the heirs of her husband, and it is only after that it will go to her parents, he said.
A panel in Uttarakhand that will submit its UCC draft to the government soon has said gender parity in all laws, including inheritance, is a top focus area. There are established propositions of inheritance that are governed by the personal laws, but they are contrary to Indian laws, so it will be interesting to see if the UCC will also lead to changes in income, and goods and services tax laws.
Another emerging concern among stakeholders and experts is the legal status of the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF). The Income Tax Act gives a separate legal “person” status to an HUF, entitling it to many tax benefits, and also in home loans and medical insurance premiums.
Simply, a HUF can run its own business to generate income and claim all applicable exemptions and deductions that an individual is entitled to. The idea behind the HUF was to promote the joint family’s interest over the individual’s interest, and the HUF has been in place for a long time.
The question is if the UCC is implemented, would the separate “person” status of an HUF continue? How will it affect lakhs of HUFs currently filing their income tax returns and availing tax deductions and exemptions?
According to Mr Mohanka, the creation of an HUF has always been considered the basic yet effective tool of tax planning within the permissible limits of the income tax law.
A Uniform Civil Code can also affect inheritance in tribal communities. Many tribes have customary laws and practices of inheritance of property, sometimes going to the oldest son, and often going to the youngest daughter.
Santhal communities, and many tribes across Jharkhand and the northeast have openly issued statements saying the UCC can disrupt their society that has varied norms of inheritance.
Many voices in the government, including Minister of State for Health SP Baghel, have made it clear the UCC will not touch the rights of tribal communities.
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