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A New Bill in India Will Govern Unwed Couples Who Live Together

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A couple seated, talking, on the sea wall overlooking Back Bay with the Malabar Hills suburb in the distance, in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Credit – David Cumming/Universal Images Group—Getty Images

Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state in northern India, has become the first to pass a new law that, regardless of religion, governs the personal matters of all Indian citizens including marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance.

Drafted as the “Uniform Civil Code Bill” (UCC), the law was passed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Wednesday, Feb. 7. It replaces a diverse set of religious and customary laws in place since India’s independence in 1947 that applied to individuals based on their religious beliefs.

The final draft of the bill was approved on Sunday, Feb. 4, after which the bill sailed through the assembly and was sent to the President for ratification.

The State’s Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said the new law is about “equality, uniformity, and equal rights.” Referring to Article 44 of the Indian Constitution, which outlines the Indian government’s right to create new personal laws in the future, he added that the bill is especially aimed at creating equality for women. “The UCC will mainly remove the discrimination against women,” he said.

With the bill’s passage near-complete, the stage is now set for other BJP-ruled states to pass similar legislation ahead of the next general election, which will likely see current Prime Minister Narendra Modi win a third term in office.

A long-held Bharatiya Janata Party promise

The passing of the new bill is widely regarded as the BJP fulfilling a major promise it made to constituents in its 2022 election manifesto as part of a longstanding campaign that dates back to the 1980s. Last June, Modi once again emphasized the need to implement it to BJP party workers.

The implementation of a Uniform Civil Code has featured heavily in the BJP’s election manifestos over the years, whose conservative Hindu-nationalist ideals stand in stark contrast to the secularist ideals propelled by the Indian National Congress during India’s independence. The BJP saw it as an attempt to appease India’s Muslims, who form India’s largest minority group with nearly 200 million people.

Critics accuse the Uttarakhand government of using the new law to target Muslims who follow customary rules on polygamy and divorce under Sharia law, which is now completely banned. “We cannot accept any law that is against Sharia because a Muslim can compromise with everything, but he or she can never compromise on Sharia and religion,” stated a leading Muslim body, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, while opposing the new law.

“The State is inside your bedrooms,” say critics

The new law has also raised eyebrows for imposing on personal relationships conducted in the private sphere. Notably, it instructs unwed couples living together to register their relationship with the government and submit “a statement of live-in relationship” within one month from the “date of entering into the relationship.” If the couple fails to do so, they could face up to three months in jail.

This stipulation has especially drawn sharp criticism from many Indians on social media platforms. Some question an apparent lack of clarity around how the state plans to regulate and enforce courtship and breakups.

“The State is now inside your bedrooms, requiring you to ‘register’ who you love, where you love, when you started loving, when the love ended. This is moral policing given state sanction,” posted an India-based journalist on X (formerly Twitter).

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com.

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