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After Backlash, Army Cancels Unprecedented Seminar on UCC in Kashmir

This was perhaps the first time that the Army was directly sponsoring an event on a political topic, and that too at Kashmir’s most prestigious higher educational institution.
Army personnel in Kashmir. Representative image. Photo: X/@ChinarcorpsIA.

New Delhi: An upcoming seminar by the Indian Army on ‘uniform civil code’ at the University of Kashmir has run into rough weather, with former chief ministers of J&K and a retired army officer among others urging the force to stay away from the “divisive issue”.

After the uproar, the Army said on Saturday (March 23) that the seminar had been cancelled.

“The Legal Awareness Seminar on March 26 by Kashmir Jurist in Kashmir University has been cancelled due to implementation of the Model Code of Conduct,” Srinagar-based defence spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Manoj Sahu said.

The BJP-led Union government is keen to implement the uniform civil code in the country.

The issue is dubbed by many as a last straw in Indian secularism and the seminar in Kashmir was being seen as yet another attempt by the saffron party to use the country’s armed forces for political objectives.

The one-day seminar, titled ‘Navigating Legal Frontiers: Understanding Indian Penal Code 2023 & the Quest for Uniform Civil Code’, was being organised by the Army’s HQ 31 Sub Area at the University of Kashmir’s auditorium and was scheduled for March 26.

Taking to X (formerly Twitter), former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah asked whether it was appropriate for the Army to debate the uniform civil code “and that too in a sensitive area like Kashmir”.

“There is a reason the Indian Army has remained apolitical & areligious. This ill-advised UCC seminar is a threat to both these basic tenets. Going ahead with this risks opening up the army to charges of getting involved in the murky world of politics coupled with interfering in religious matters,” he said.

Speaking to The Wire, Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, who has headed the Army’s strategic Northern Command in J&K, said that the Army should stay away from political and religious issues.

“My personal view is that any subject that has even the faintest whiff of politics or religion to it should be studiously avoided by the military, particularly in a public discussion,” Lieutenant General Hooda said.

Although the seminar is not the first event of its kind organised by the armed forces, which organises regular sports and other events involving educational institutions in J&K, it was perhaps for the first time that the Army was directly sponsoring an event on a political topic and that too at Kashmir’s most prestigious higher educational institution.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think-tank, termed the Army’s decision as “unfortunate”.

“Had this been a closed discussion to promote awareness among officers, it may have been a different matter. Such participation – indeed sponsorship of the event – bodes ill for the Army’s institutional culture and long established traditions,” Sahni said.

Former chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti told the Indian Express: “Indian military is the fourth strongest and one of the most disciplined forces in the world. But since [the] BJP has weaponised religion and is infiltrating it into all sacred institutions of the country – the Army seems to be yet another casualty.”

According to an invitation letter sent out on Friday, chief justice of the J&K and Ladakh high court, Justice N. Kotiswar Singh, was going to be the chief guest while Achal Sethi, law secretary of J&K and Major General P.B.S. Lamba, who is the GoC of the Army’s HQ 31 Sub Area, were among the panelists.

The program was set to include a panel discussion on how the new code “aligns with the principles of secularism and … social harmony” and “contribute(s) to upholding individual rights and freedoms” in India.

It was also to discuss the “challenges and benefits” of a uniform civil code for “family law and inheritance laws”.

The invitation letter stated that a second panel discussion at the end of the seminar would focus on the ‘Bharatiya Nayay Sanhita 2023’, which replaced the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, and how the recent amendments to the IPC had led to “empowering and protecting the rights of crime victims”.

Both panel discussions were going to be followed by Q&A sessions, according to the invitation letter.

The Army was recently under the spotlight in J&K over the alleged torture of civilians in Poonch district.

Three persons, who had suffered serious injuries during torture, later succumbed to their injuries.

A video of the torture had also gone viral on social media platforms.

The Union government recently asked The Caravan magazine to pull down a story on the Poonch torture that had detailed how the Army abducted the civilians from their villages and later paid blood money to the victims’ families.

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