By Seema Javed
18th October 2015
The Supreme Court has asked the Centre if
it is willing to bring a Uniform Civil Code in the country. This is not the
first time the apex court has come out in favour of a common civil code. It set
the ball rolling in the Shah Bano case in 1985 and repeated its observation
twice again on this key directive principle of state policy enshrined in our
The ruling establishment could have used
the window of opportunity to push for reforms in the Muslim personal laws, left
untouched when the Hindu code bills were passed in the mid-1950s as a first
step towards evolution of a common civil code.
Instead, the Rajiv Gandhi government
buckled under pressure from a Muslim clergy and counteracted the court judgment
by passing a law in Parliament to that effect.
This time the court’s directions have come
at a time when the national polity seems to be highly polarised on community
lines. This has left the Modi government in a catch-22 situation. While holding
that a common code was “necessary for national integration”, Law Minister D V
Sadananda Gowda said the issue required discussions with all stakeholders,
including various personal law boards, and that evolving consensus and could
take “some time”.
When the Britishers came to India, they
faced a highly fragmented society in a state of flux. Adopting a policy of
divide and rule, they never touched the religious beliefs of the natives.
Except for rare intervention on issues such as sati and widow remarriage, they
allowed different personal laws for different communities.
At the time of writing our Constitution, we
were faced with a variety of laws based on bad religious interpretation and
ideas of the 19th century. In Article 44 of the Constitution, our founding
fathers wrote their dream of bringing the whole of India under a common civil
code and putting an end to a hodgepodge of religious laws. The inclusion of a
common civil code in the directive principles of the state policy was pushed by
secularists such as Nehru and Ambedkar, the women’s rights groups and the Left
parties when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution. At that time,
the Hindu parties were not ready to accept it. Now, when the BJP is ready to
accept the Uniform Civil Code, the same elite secularists are branding it as
fundamentalist and backward.
Unfortunately, while Nehru pushed for
reform of the Hindu code through four landmark legislations in 1956—allowing
divorce, alimony, equal inheritance to sons and daughters and adoption—he
allowed other religions to keep the substantially anti-women 19th century laws.
After the Supreme Court’s recent prodding,
the government is duty-bound to act on it. But given the prevailing political
situation, it remains to be seen if a government perceived as anti-minorities
by a section of society can push for such a law in Parliament, where it has
failed to ensure passage of crucial legislation on economic reforms.
At a time when the rise of global Islamism
in the form of al-Qaeda and ISIS poses a major challenge to the security of
both the West and nations with substantial Muslim populations, an immediate and
aggressive state intervention in Muslim personal laws can complicate the
It is, however, time for progressive
leaders of Muslim and other religious communities to ensure their archaic
personal laws changed with the times. Already, advocacy groups of various
religious communities are rooting for a Uniform Civil Code. A recent survey of
over 5,000 Muslim women across 10 states reveals that a majority is against the
practice of triple Talaq. Over 92 per cent of those surveyed wanted polygamy
The government should start discussions
with people of all shades of opinion on the subject. Today, there are small but
important efforts to challenge and develop alternatives to Islamism from
within. This new thinking, however, cannot achieve mainstream lift-off until a
critical mass of Muslims address the ideological quagmire they face, and
reject, re-interpret, and modernise traditional decrees and edicts. It is
incumbent on thinking Muslims to bend the course of Muslim history in a more
positive direction. email@example.com
Javed is an independent journalist and media consultant