In a non-binding comment, the Supreme Court said this week that uniform civil laws for all Indians would foster integration.

 

This judgement drew cheers from the Bharatiya Janata Party of Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee which has long campaigned for common laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance.

   

"It is sane advice, we hope all political parties will support such legislation," said BJP spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra on Thursday.

 

"The common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing contradictions based on ideology."

Deeply divisive

The issue of a common civil code for all Indians is a deeply sensitive and controversial one as it would affect, for example, the right of an Indian Muslim man to have more than one wife.

At present, the Indian constitution allows members of different faiths to follow their own religious laws.

The personal laws give Muslims the right to follow Islamic rules on polygamy and divorce, but also restrict Christians' rights to bequeath property for religious or charitable uses.

 

"The common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing contradictions based on ideology."

        Vijay Kumar Malhotra

Meanwhile, Hindus are governed by a Hindu marriage act.

   

The minorities fear a uniform code would mean being subject to Hindu laws, encroaching on their religious freedom.

 

Discrimination

   

Muslims constitute more than 12 percent of India's mainly Hindu billion-plus people and Christians about two percent.

   

They have long accused the BJP of a deep-seated prejudice against them.

 

But the BJP alone does not have the numbers to push such legislation through parliament and most opposition groups and even its own coalition partners oppose such a move.

       

The main opposition Congress party, which campaigns on a secular agenda, reacted cautiously, saying it would study the court's remarks.

   

"In general, we are for social change but we believe on such issues it should come from within society and not be imposed," party spokesman Satyavrat Chaturvedi said.

 

Special treatment for minorities has been controversial issue since 1986, when Muslims forced the government to reverse a landmark ruling ordering payment of maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman.

   

Muslim groups said the court had no right to interpret Muslim personal law, which only Islamic scholars could do.