The ‘Idea of India’ needs Reforms, not Uniformity

Nehru-Ambedkar retreated on UCC due to opposition by HM & RSS

Suddenly Uniform Civil Code is on the table. There can hardly be a debate that such a law would bring in uniformity in family laws.   Pandit Nehru and BR Ambedkar had to retreat on UCC amidst strong opposition from the Hindu Mahasabha and other religious conservatives. UCC was seen as an assault on Hindu civilization and a threat to the identity of religious minorities. MS Golwalkar, RSS Sarsangchalak believed ‘uniformity is a pointer to the downfall of nations’.

Today those who hold Nehru in high esteem and those who deify Ambedkar are suspicious of that uniform law.

 The 1858, Queen’s Proclamation ordained non-interference in religious matters when laws relating to crime, evidence and contract were codified. The non-interference was in matters of marriage, succession, divorce, maintenance, inheritance and adoption. In areas like Sati and widow remarriage, the British brought in reforms, while Nehru rationalised the majority community law after the first general election, leaving the minorities to work out reforms.

The minorities and tribal groups from the North East and the Adivasis from Central India are governed by their long-standing customs and practices. The tribes of Khasis and Garo and the Nairs of Kerala are matrilineal. The Sikhs are governed Anand Marriage Act of 1909. The Muslims, Christians and Parsis have their own personal laws. Women in the Adivasi belt of Central India have no rights in ancestral property and have polyandrous marriages. The Constitution protects these customs and practices along with HUF which grants huge tax benefits to millions of Hindus.

Law Commission ’16 rejected UCC

In 2016, the BJP government egged the Law Commission appointed by it to have a relook at the Queen’s proclamation of non-interference. The 21st law commission headed by a retired SC judge was loud and clear that such a law is ‘neither necessary nor desirable’. They concluded:

(a) the difference does not always imply discrimination in a robust democracy

(b) a unified nation does not necessarily need to have uniformity

(c) cultural diversity cannot be compromised to the extent of preserving uniformity, and

(d) diversity both religious and regional should not get subsumed under the louder noise of the majority.

Discriminatory practices within a religion should not hide within that faith to gain legitimacy. They recommended:

(a) fixing the same marriageable age for boys and girls

(b) making adultery a ground for divorce

(c) simplifying divorce procedure, and

(d) applying polygamy across communities.

The law commission was apprehensive that a uniform law would encourage extra-legal and extra-judicial tendencies. The cherished goal of equality for women and making all personal laws gender-just was addressed.

But the current law commission headed by R R Awasthi J, who as CJ of Karnataka HC upheld the ‘hijab law’, and with Shankaran J of Kerala HC, who upheld ‘Love Jihad’ as a member – is now overboard in seeking views of religious groups and the public on the UCC. The PM  has likened the country to a family while propagating ‘one-country-one-law’.

Us-versus-Them for 2024?

The ‘one-country-one-law’ will make the diverse country homogenous. At a time, when the dominant narrative is a majoritarian approach to democracy, the UCC is a clear red herring in a ‘Us-versus-Them’ approach to general elections. The ‘mandir wahi banayenge’ has divided the country.  Love jihad, beef lynching, hijab and azan, kabrastan- rhetoric has further widened the divide. There is a massive whip-up of emotions against the minorities in a bid to consolidate the majority which sees nationalism through homogeneity.

With the 2024 elections just 10 months away, the UCC is a political game plan. Had it not been for the suspicion of the ‘Us-versus-Them’ electoral approach, which has only widened the divisions in society, who would not want a uniform law if possible and feasible?

There are too many ramifications for a diverse country where people enjoy multiple religious and cultural rights. There are serious issues requiring clarity. Whether the preservation of diversity must prevail or precedence be given to uniformity and universality of laws is another issue. A plurality of the country is what constitutes the Idea of India. Indian democracy is respected for its flexibility in regional and cultural differences. The idea of one law may look attractive, but if that law destroys customs and practices and brings in conflict, it is not worth it.

Even the BJP-backed CMs of Meghalaya and Mizoram are spot-on in their opposition to the UCC. The latest on the issue is that tribals from North East and Adivasis would be out of it. Then what uniformity are we talking about?

Reforms First, Please!

The one size fits all approach is like a ‘nuclear bomb on the country’ according to Vir Sanghvi. It could have an impact on generations to come. Freedom of religion and culture with tolerance and inclusivity is the foundation of India. Even the slightest deviation could shake the social fibre of the country.  No religion propagates assault on women’s rights and gender equality.

The egalitarian approach has to be worked out within the framework of a rich cultural tapestry without suppressing the identity of minority communities and tribals. The country requires a ruthless ban on child marriage and bigamy and egalitarian adoption procedures across all communities, gender-just laws in inheritance and unhindered entry of women in places of worship.

Islamic countries like Indonesia, Morocco and Tunisia have brought in gender-just provisions in their personal laws. Even Pakistan brought reforms in their personal law while not interfering with minority laws.

Gender equality cannot be a subject matter of electoral politics. If that is permitted, maybe by 2029 we may get ‘one country-one-language’ with an eye on the cow belt. There is already enough noise on one-country-one-party!

It is ironic that the cynical political slugfest has led progressive and liberal sections and even feminists to oppose a law proposed by Nehru and Ambedkar and opposed by Golwalkar!

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