A seething debate is underway in "Hindu-majority" India once again as the Modi government plans to replace religion-based personal law with a uniform code.
India, known to be a 'secular nation', has successfully practiced parliamentary democracy for the past six decades. Undoubtedly, India has allowed its people of varied religions to follow their own faith-based codes governing marriage, divorce and inheritance. Some took it as rights, others labeled these as "minority appeasement".
Perhaps the whole politics is about this.
The Indian Constitution, which declared the country a secular nation in 1950, accepted various religion-based personal codes when it was promulgated, but had originally intended to introduce a common code in the country.
Contrary to popular opinion, the need for Uniform Civil Code in India – that has been successfully practicing parliamentary democracy for last six decades – is not strictly an invention of the “Hindu chauvinistic” Narendra Modi government. From time to time the ‘Hindu majority’ country with an estimated 18 per cent Muslims and 2-3 per cent Christians has witnessed intense debate surrounding the Uniform Civil Code.
In 2003, the Supreme Court had given a ruling stating in its order: "A common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing the contradictions based on ideologies”. In fact, the terse observation from the Supreme Court of India came taking in cognizance of a petition filed a Christian priest relating to property rights.
Under the Indian law, Christians are forbidden from donating inherited property for charitable purposes. The court had said there is already a legal provision for a uniform civil code in India and that it was "a matter of regret" that it has not been enacted.
The debate has surfaced once again in circa 2016 with the Law Commission of India circulating a set of questionnaire recently seeking opinion of citizens, various religious groups and other stake holders on what they felt about the very idea of ‘uniform civil code’. There is a political hyperbole in it as India’s ruling party the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), has long been pushing for such a law in the face of “opposition” from political detractors. The opponents of Uniform Civil Code have always linked it to the BJP’s pro-Hindu slant. The refrain being, can Hindutva be linked to Bharatityata (Indianness).
The Muslim organizations have also predictably opposed the uniform civil code idea. As of now Christians are simply gauging the national mood even as individually Christians are not opposed to the uniform civil code per se. For the majority Hindus especially upper echelons, there is a “perceived Muslim appeasement” in opposing the uniform civil code indulged by the political class including the communists, the Congress party led by an Italy-born ‘Hindu widow’ Sonia Gandhi and the socialists.
“These appeasements of Muslims by Congress and communists without working genuinely for Muslims uplift are only bound to increase hate-Muslims approach among Hindus. Hence there is a bigger political relation to the uniform civil code debate,” says Yogi Adityanath, a BJP lawmaker.
Many Christians like a Naga politician in Christian-dominated Nagaland state – T. Ngullie – says, “Unlike what is made out to be, Muslim women stand to benefit from the uniform civil code. There is a male chauvinism among Muslim leadership that is leading to oppose the same.”
Such claims cannot be dismissed outright. Several Muslim organizations including All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Muslim Majlise- Mushawarat, Milli Council, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees along with other schools of thought like Deoband, Barelvi, Ahle Hadith – known for their pro-male slant - have rejected the questionnaire prepared by the Law Commission. In fact, Hyderabad-based Jamait Ulama has said that the uniform civil code debate is actually only an “interference” into the affairs of Muslims as “Muslims are completely satisfied with the existing laws”.
However, there are a few Muslim organizations like All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), which has translated Law Commission questionare in Urdu and favoured the debate at the mass level.
As regard the ruling BJP and the federal government of the day, both find uniform civil code a “progressive” step. The Modi government has clearly come out in support of abolishing medieval practices such as triple talaq, polygamy and nikah.
Triple Talaq allows the Muslim husband to divorce his wife by uttering (or even writing) the word ‘talaq’ three times to his wife. The provision is often allegedly abused as the system leaves the Muslim wife “divorced and without means of livelihood”. Moreover, unlike other communities in India, the Islamic practice of polygamy permits a Muslim male to be married to four wives at a time.
These are seen as discriminatory and even pro-men social practice among Muslim society.
But all said and done, bringing about uniform civil code in a vast country with varied socio-religious background, is a gigantic task. The argument put forward by a former federal Law minister and a senior Congress leader M Veerappa Moily that it is “difficult” to bring in a uniform civil code – where people have different personal laws - gains currency.
But, for some like Hyderabad-based MP and leader of a fledgling Muslim outfit, All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) Asaduddin Owaisi, the ruling dispensation – that is BJP – seems to be successful in pushing the “real agenda” – that is to link the entire debate to the opponents of uniform civil code by Muslims.
Many BJP leaders privately admit that when it comes to the crux, in uniform civil code debate, even Christians would back the majority Hindus.
But in the entire debate, there are also deeper questions raised by the proponents of hardliner Hindutva school that when it comes a uniformity in law – based on constitutional principles such as gender equality, secularism and even international laws – Hindutva could be or should will be compared to as good as ‘Bhartiyata’ – the Indianness. The debate remains inconclusive, certainly.