The introduction of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has been talked about for decades, indeed since Independence. It was part of the BJP 2014 manifesto, and the attempt at reform of triple talaq has set alarm bells ringing among liberal intellectuals and conservative Muslims. The uniform liberal view seems to be that the UCC is an imposition by a right-wing, Muslim-unfriendly government, and that the reform of triple talaq is just a way to beat up or subjugate the Muslim community. The “liberals” (and I will have the word in quotes until it is established that the “liberals” are actually liberals) claim that there are discriminatory anti-women laws among the majority Hindu religion, and that these need to be reformed first before imposing majority views on the minorities.
Let us start with the first principle. In a fair, just and ideal world, rights should be human rights, unaffected by sex or religion. The Indian Constitution came close to defining it in this manner. Article 44 of the Constitution, “Uniform civil code for the citizens” states that “The State shall endeavor to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”. Unfortunately, the Constitution-writers inserted this clause in the non-binding Directive Principles of State Policy section.
The Constituent Assembly debates make up for the lack of appropriate specification in the Constitution. Particularly relevant for today’s debate are the comments of K M Munshi, made 68 years earlier. His summary view on the UCC, which he supported, was “This attitude of mind perpetuated under the British rule, that personal law is part of religion, has been fostered by the British and by British courts. We must, therefore, outgrow it.”
At the time, Munshi made his comments, the Hindu law was very anti-women. However, post 2005 and passage of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, men and women have equal rights to inheritance, property, etc. Besides some possible capital gains benefits for those filing under HUF (Hindu Undivided Family), there are no differences (that I can surmise, though I am willing to be corrected) in the rights of Hindu men and Hindu women. However, this was not the case in 1949, when Munshi said :
“I know there are many among Hindus who do not like a Uniform Civil Code, because they take the same view as the honourable Muslim Members who spoke last. They feel that the personal law of inheritance, succession, etc, is really a part of their religion. If that were so, you can never give, for instance, equality to women. But you have already passed a Fundamental Right to that effect and you have an article here which lays down that there should be no discrimination against sex. Look at Hindu Law; you get any amount of discrimination against women; and if that is part of Hindu religion or Hindu religious practice, you cannot pass a single law which would elevate the position of Hindu women to that of men. Therefore, there is no reason why there should not be a civil code throughout the territory of India (emphasis added)”.
Not surprisingly, Munshi, a Congressman and governor of Uttar Pradesh during 1952-57, resigned from the Congress and became the vice-president of the newly-formed Swatantra Party. He recognised early on that the Nehru-led Congress was no party for liberals.
The Muslim community has attacked the suggestion of a UCC as a direct attack on itself. A recent press release, signed by 103 “Muslims and People of Muslim Descent” (goo.gl/QvhME3) states at the outset that it is “against the instant arbitrary triple talaq as practiced in India and we support the demand of the Muslim women to abolish it.” However, the statement goes on to add that “The present regime and their earlier avatars have used Uniform Civil Code as a stick to frighten and demonise the Muslim community and polarise opinion… Uniform Civil Code has been always been projected by such regimes and right-wing politics as a Hindu v/s Muslim tool. The fact of the matter is that many of the personal laws irrespective of which religion they belong to are archaic and anti-women….We appeal to all liberal, progressive sections of the Muslims as well as all other citizens to support the struggle of the Muslim women for reform and to expose the nefarious designs of both the present regime as well as of the patriarchal conservative Muslims who are colliding with the retrogressive forces to take the attention away from the most important issues and the failures of the present government on all fronts” (emphasis added).
It is intriguing that the “liberals” have moved from attacking triple talaq and women’s rights to an all-out attack on a “right-wing” government. Let me see if I understand this right. The previous Congress governments went all-out for appeasement (remember Shah Bano?) of Muslims to get a few extra votes, irrespective of the fact that they were being blatantly anti-women; the present government, even if it against triple talaq and pro-women rights, is suspect because it has failed on all fronts?
Even “liberals” like Flavia Agnes have problems with implementing the UCC at this time. In a not too dissimilar statement than the one above, she states “today the faith of Muslim communities in the present right-wing government is at very low ebb. Hence the political climate is not conducive to reforming laws of minorities or for bringing in a Uniform Civil Code”(emphasis added).
When asked about why the UCC should not be implemented, she counters by obfuscation. “When discriminatory practices within Hindu law and cultural practices are discussed they are not framed as “Hindu” but are discussed in general terms as “women’s problems”. One such Hindu problem coming in the way of the UCC is “the problem of dowry-related violence and dowry deaths. There is no research conducted as to how many women who are murdered for dowry are Hindus. A research done by our organisation about cases which have reached the Supreme Court and the Bombay High Court revealed that more than 90 percent were Hindus. Less than 10 percent were Muslims and others.”
Assume for a moment that all 100% of dowry deaths are Hindu. What does that fact have anything to do with the desirability of a UCC? These deaths are illegal, are not sanctioned by law, Hindu or otherwise. If not implemented, it is a law-and-order problem, not a UCC problem.
It is somewhat disappointing to note that whereas a fundamentalist Muslim country like Pakistan has banned triple talaq, our “liberals” are arguing that UCC should not be introduced until India has solved all problems related to women—nay, all problems related to womenkind. Masha Allah, “liberals”.
Implementation of the UCC will not result in zero dowry deaths, or make zero the practice of bigamy among Hindus, or the practice of “quadrigamy” among Muslims. Further, the UCC will not end violence against women. To ask for solution to all women-related problems before introducing the UCC is to blatantly argue against the interests of women. Which is why the quotation marks on “liberals” remains.
The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York based macro policy advisory group. Twitter: @surjitbhalla