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Mainstream, VOL LV No 15 New Delhi April 1, 2017

Uniform Civil Code: A much-needed reform or a political tool?

Sunday 2 April 2017, by Shamsul Islam

The Shiv Sena (the vanguard of moral policing and culture as seen recently in Kerala) says: “The Muslim Law Board should support the UCC as it will help the community, especially the women to come out of misery.”

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) or personal law was always a “controversial” one in the Indian polity. Modern India has adopted a common law system as a replacement to Manu’s code, even though most of it remains on paper and in reality many a time equality is denied in legal and public spheres. Except in matters of marriage, property inheritance and adoption we were able to invade the laws of Manu which was reigning the Indian landmass and replace it with uniform and egalitarian laws which constitute 95 per cent of the total laws in India. Article 44 of Directive Principles in the Indian Constitution reads: “The State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India”, but over the history there was no glimpse of endeavouring by the state to have a bottom-up approach for reformation of the personal law and it was reduced to a political tool, a synonym to alienate the Muslims in India, its most shining example being the absence of a draft bill of the same.

One can observe that Ambedkar’s appre-hension that in a country where communal sentiments are used for political gains, imple-mentation of the UCC will be disastrous has come out to be true. The debate over the UCC resurfaced in 1985 when a Muslim woman, Shah Bano, was denied maintenance from her divorced husband, something that was challenged in the Court by the former who was able to claim maintenance as per Section 125 of the CrPC. This aroused strong protests from self-styled Muslim leaders, in response to which the Rajiv Gandhi Government passed an ordinance overruling the judgement. This helped the growing organised Hindutva politicos in pro-pelling the argument of ‘minority appeasement’, which eventually led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and riots in Bombay.

All discussion on the UCC is circumvented around the reform of ‘barbaric Islamic customs’ and people have conveniently forgotten about the inherent gender-justice part which should be prioritised. They think that the Hindu personal laws are egalitarian and should be adopted by other communities which is necessary for national integration. In their action-plan of building a Hindu Rashtra, the Sangh Parivar places Muslims as invaders and spreads the lie that polygamous relationship among Muslims will lead India to an Islamic state, but surveys reveal that polygamous relationship are more popular among Hindus. While one crore Hindu men have more than one wife, twelve lakh Muslim men are in a bigamous relationship. In reality, the law of monogamy in Hindus ends up in denying maintenance for Hindu women as more than one legal marriage is not allowed among Hindus and the Court observes them as ‘mistresses’ and ‘keeps’.

The demand for the UCC arises solely from the Hindutvavadi camp, while surveys among Muslim women reveal that they want a ban on Triple talaq and polygamy in Muslim Personal Law and this cannot be read as a favour for the UCC. There are direct correlations of polygamous relationship and birth rate to the socioeconomic status of women, and the poor performance on this indicator could be seen as a reason for increased polygamy and birth rate among the tribals in India. While the Muslim fundamen-talists take shelter behind ‘culture’ against any reformation in personal law, by coining it as an illegitimate interference by the state in religious practice, a stand similar to B.G. Tilak on the Age of Consent Bill 1891, which proposed that the marriageable age for girls should be raised from ten to twelve. The argument that unilateral divorce is an immutable law which they have been following from ancient times does not stand as a Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh has managed to reform Islamic laws in order to benefit women. So rather than creating binaries of national integration vs cultural right of a community, what we need is gender- just laws. The stark reality of double-standard of those who push the UCC as a move towards women’s empowerment could be seen in their silence on reservation of 33 per cent women in Parliament and their terming marital rape as a personal affair where marriages are considered as lifelong consents for sexual abuse.

India is a compartmentalised society which lives on caste and gender, and the roots of gender discrimination and violence are from caste and by annihilating caste alone can we have a society that truly empowers women. To allow people to pursue their freedom what is required is that one who says no to his/her community or a couple who says no to the caste rules can exist here with the other communities. India currently has six sets of personal laws which discriminate women in some form or the other.

Any action of imposing uniformity will be the assertioin of a dominant voice to the marginali-sation and exclusion of a multiplicity of other interests and identities, as we have seen in the case of the Hindu Personal Law which rather than reforming, codified the heterogeneous practices into a North Indian upper-caste practice, thus destroying the matrilineal system that was existing in the communities of Kerala, which positioned women in a better way and the women there were brought into the clutches of patriarchy. In the present context where ‘Hindu’ is equated to ‘Indian’, any push for the UCC will be the extension of Hindu laws to other communities as Hindus think ‘we Hindus’ have already given ‘our’ women equal rights.

To bring about egalitarian and gender-just laws, we must organise and raise our voice against the brahminical establishment and its political outfits, the BJP/RSS and the government; or else we would be ending up in laws strengthening the brahmanical Hindu state.

Shamsul Islam, a well-known theatre personality, is a former Associate Professor (now retired), Department of Political Science, Satyawati College, University of Delhi. For some of the author’s writings in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Gujarati see the following link: http/

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