By Srinivas Bhaskar
29 Jun 2014
The primary purpose of the UCC is not to homogenise civil laws across the country; but to bring the Muslim Personal Law (MPL) in line with modern notions of gender equality as is being called for by the Progressive Muslim Women of the BMMA.
Vocal and prominent calls for reform of Personal Laws have emerged from within the Muslim community. The most recent and significant voice comes from the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a group working for the rights of Muslim Women. The BMMA recently released a draft of a more egalitarian Muslim Family Law, which does away with polygamy and oral divorce. This voice from the Muslim women is reminiscent of the vocal support the modernisation of Hindu Personal Laws received from the Hindu women and backward castes — the groups that felt most oppressed by the then prevalent Hindu Personal Laws.
It would be useful to understand the historical process by Hindu Personal Laws was reformed to appreciate the significance of this proposal by the BMMA.
It took almost 10 years for the Hindu Code Bill to be drafted, debated, defended and passed. However, the call for reforms and the ground work for the codification of Hindu Personal Laws started almost a century before that. Similarly, codification and reforms of MPL is bound to take time. A necessary antecedent to that, as in the case of the Hindu Code Bill, is a resurgent, palpable and vocal call for reforms from within the Muslims.
The history of prominent Hindu Social Reformists goes back to the 19th century. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar are two figures who succeeded in making their voice heard and in galvanising the Hindu community. In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi notably challenged both gender and caste-based discrimination. His particular success was in getting this message across to millions by using his considerable pan-India influence. The work of these reformers was finally taken to conclusion by Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr BR Ambedkar in the mid 1900s with the passing of the four Hindu Code Bills.
One of the most significant aspects of the Hindu Code Bill was the promotion and support it received from those who had been unjustly treated by the Hindu orthodox laws. Many prominent women stood firmly behind this Bill. During a debate in the Parliament, Subhadra Joshi, a prominent freedom fighter and Parliamentarian, asked for an end to the “Sharm Ki Zindagi” (life of shame) that women in India are subject to.
This is not to say that calls for reform in the MPL have not risen from the Muslim community. Unfortunately, these calls have been sidelined by the political class, in favour of the voices from the Muslim orthodoxy. The most recent memory of this was the resurgent call for reforms in 1985-1986, following the Shah Bano judgement. Reforms were genuinely possible – Rajiv Gandhi had an unprecedented and strong majority and the support of an eloquent Muslim Minister, Arif Mohammad Khan. However, Rajiv Gandhi chose to take the easier and safer road, thus showing a lack of keenness or political acumen to push through reforms – ability lawmakers three decades ago had shown, in the context of the Hindu Code Bill. The work on the Hindu Code Bill was started by the British in the last few years of their rule in response to the demands for reform and codification of the Hindu Personal Law. Now might be the time for the Indian political class to react to similar demands for reform coming from the Muslim community.
This scattered, but strong and vocal, demand for reforms from within the Muslims should now act as a catalyst to start work on a more egalitarian civil code for the community.
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee was one of the most vocal voices asking for a Uniform Civil Code in the early days after independence. During one of his speeches in the Parliament, he questioned why the Congress was seeking to end polygamy only in Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities (and not in Muslims). “Because we are the community”, interrupted C Rajagopalachari, one of the most respected and key supporters of the Hindu Code Bill. Six decades after Rajaji’s terse reply, scattered but palpable voices for reform are emerging from within the community that the Congress refused to “interfere with” in the 1950s.
Uniform Civil Code (UCC) continues to be a polarising topic. Critics of the UCC argue for a ‘non-uniform’ civil code, justified by the diversity of our country. However, this argument entirely misses the ethos of the UCC. The primary purpose of the UCC is not to homogenise civil laws across the country; but to bring the Muslim Personal Law (MPL) in line with modern notions of gender equality as is being called for by the Progressive Muslim Women of the BMMA. Once this has been realised, a Uniform Civil Code is but a natural progression by bringing together the various modernised and codified personal laws. Unfortunately, the debate on the UCC has mixed up the reform and homogenisation issue. This is a trick to stall the modernisation of the MPL by those groups that benefit from the current orthodox codes. Separating the two debates, pursuing the reform and codification of the MPL as a priority is the only means of moving forward to on the contentious but necessary Uniform Code.
Often, seemingly insignificant and overlooked events trigger a chain of actions that shape history. As we have seen, the foundation for the codification and reform of the Hindu Personal Law was laid way before the code was finally passed in 1955-1956. Similarly, these reformist voices from within the Muslim community are laying the foundation for a more egalitarian MPL, and a concomitant move towards a gender-equal UCC, as demanded for by the Constitution of India.