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Uttarakhand UCC Bill: What changes in marriage, divorce, guardianship, and adoption?

Context- The 2024 Uttarakhand Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill introduces substantial modifications in the areas of marriage, adoption, and related matters.

What are the existing laws on marriage and divorce?

  • Their governance falls under the secular Special Marriage Act (SMA) of 1954, along with personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, the Indian Christian Marriages Act of 1872, the Indian Divorce Act of 1869, the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act of 1936, and both uncodified (Shariat) and codified Muslim law, which includes the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 2019, and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986.

And what are the existing laws on parent-child relations?

  • Parent-child relationships are governed by guardianship laws. Natural guardianship is dictated by personal laws, while the secular Guardians and Wards Act (GWA), 1890, covers court-appointed guardianship.
  • Fathers are considered the child’s guardian under all personal laws, with the right to make decisions about the child and their property. Mothers are seen as custodians, reducing their role to caretakers. Children born out of wedlock are deemed “illegitimate” and denied certain rights, including inheritance.
  • The Supreme Court has tried to rectify this by allowing mothers to be appointed as guardians if fathers fail in their duties, and granting inheritance rights to children from void and voidable marriages, but these changes are limited to Hindu law.
  • Regarding adoption, the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act (HAMA), 1956, allows Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs to adopt, while the secular Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2015, permits adoption for everyone, regardless of religion.

What is the framework on registration of marriages proposed by the Uttarakhand UCC Bill?

  • The Bill mandates the registration of marriages and divorce decrees, with retrospective effect. There’s no requirement for notice or objection for marriage registration, but the Register of Marriages is publicly accessible, potentially exposing inter-caste and inter-faith couples to surveillance.
  • While unregistered marriages remain valid, failure to register after a notice from the sub-registrar results in a Rs 25,000 fine, pushing people towards compulsory registration. Non-registration of live-in relationships can lead to imprisonment.

What are some of the main features in the UCC Bill with regard to personal law and customs around marriage and divorce?

  • The Bill allows marriages to be solemnized through any applicable ceremonies or rituals. It extends the prohibition on bigamy to all communities and criminalizes customs that impose conditions on remarriage between divorced spouses.
  • Extrajudicial divorce methods not prescribed under the Code, including local customs like customary divorce deeds or panchayat divorce, are punishable. Divorce forms such as talaq-us-sunnat, talaq-i-biddat, khula, maba’arat, and zihar are all punishable with imprisonment.
  • The Bill acknowledges Mehr and dower as payable in addition to any maintenance.

What does the Uttarakhand UCC mean for guardianship?

  • The Bill does not address guardianship, implying that personal laws and the Guardians and Wards Act (GWA) will continue to apply. As per the Bill, fathers are guardians, while mothers are custodians, with custody of children up to five years typically given to the mother.
  • However, it doesn’t clarify if mothers can also be legal guardians. The 2018 Law Commission’s recommendation for equal parental guardianship is not incorporated in the Bill.
  • The Bill does state that children from void and voidable marriages and live-in relationships are legitimate, with the same rights as those born within marriage. But children from relationships not defined as “in the nature of marriage” may still be considered illegitimate.

How does the UCC change the position on adoption?

  • The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act (HAMA) and the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act will remain in effect.
  • Adoption under HAMA involves a transfer process between the surrendering parent or guardian and the adoptive parents, but lacks registration requirements or institutional oversight, leading to calls for reform to prevent misuse such as child trafficking.
  • The JJ Act, however, offers adequate safeguards for the child’s safety and best interests. While the Uttarakhand Bill mandates registration of marriages and live-in relationships, it doesn’t extend this requirement to adoptions under Hindu law, missing a chance to reform Hindu adoption.

What are some of the concerns around criminalisation?

  • The Bill enforces its provisions through criminalisation, which could disproportionately affect minority communities as it outlaws several of their religious and customary practices.
  • Additionally, the surveillance system established by the Bill could potentially be exploited to harass couples from different faiths and castes.

Conclusion- The Uttarakhand Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill, 2024, introduces significant changes to marriage, adoption, and related aspects, with a strong emphasis on mandatory registration. However, it leaves certain areas untouched, such as guardianship and adoption under Hindu law.

The enforcement of the Bill through criminalisation could disproportionately impact certain communities, and the surveillance system it establishes could potentially be misused against inter-faith and inter-caste couples. Therefore, while the Bill represents a step forward in some areas, it also raises concerns about potential misuse and the need for further reform.

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