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Islamic Society ( 17 Oct 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Uniform Civil Code or Islamic Reform?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

17 October 2016

The latest controversy over the Law Commission Questionnaire eliciting responses over the viability of a Uniform Civil Code has raised many questions. But at the outset, it should be made clear that there is nothing wrong in the Commission asking for opinions from the general public about something which is important not just for Muslims but for a host of other communities in India. Those who are seeing a sinister design behind the questionnaire are plainly wrong. The questionnaire also elicits opinions about reforms in other communities, not just in the Muslim community. Those who are reducing it as a Muslim issue must answer the charge of communalizing and trivializing an otherwise serious issue.

The responses from various political parties have been along expected lines. The so called parties of social justice have been quick in condemning the law commission outright and declaring it as an infringement on the rights of minorities, particularly Muslims.

There is some merit in the argument that the law commission questionnaire dovetails neatly with the upcoming UP elections. It can also be safely argued that the BJP’s desire in fostering a debate on Uniform Civil Code is not about any genuine attempt to have a dialogue on the merits of the proposed legislation but is more driven with a desire to paint the Muslims as the other: as a community which is perpetually inclined to block reform within its ranks and choose to be socially conservative and regressive. The ironical problem however is that amidst all this debate, it is the BJP which is coming out as a supporter and champion of gender justice.

The position of AIMPLB is only furthering the agenda of the BJP. If the BJP wants to portray the Muslims as the regressive minority, the AIMPLB is more than willing to act like one. By not engaging with the questionnaire of the law commission, it does not realise that it is sending a wrong message to other communities that Muslims remain committed to be wedded to the norms of a bygone era and refuse to come out of it. Granted that BJP might be willing to polarise society for electoral purposes, granted that it has a hidden agenda; but the fact remains that it the party of ruling dispensation and that Muslims need to engage with the government. The wholesale refusal of the AIMPLB to junk the questionnaire shows them in a particularly bad light.

On a more theoretical plane, one needs to rethink the relationship within the individual and the community in so far as the Muslim community is concerned. The received wisdom that group rights are inalienable to the Muslim community needs to be rethought. What we are confronting today is that the defined religious rights of the community are coming in the way dissenting opinions not just from specific individuals but also from within minority groups within the larger Indian Muslim community. Democracy and justice demands that these voices need to be heard and their demands be taken seriously. There cannot be a situation where in the name of rights of minorities, right of dissent should be taken away from smaller groups and individuals. Given the nature of Muslim religious organizations, this situation is hardly going to change: the power asymmetry within the Muslim community will only end up silencing the critics of the existing religious authority.

Therefore the role of the state becomes important here. Without the state support, one cannot conceive that Muslim women’s group challenging the patriarchal Islam of AIMPLB will ever succeed. Those questioning the motive of these women organization must understand that historically, all voices of reform have succeeded because the state has stood solidly behind such demands. If the Muslim women’s bodies today seek the support of the state, there is nothing wrong with it. Moreover, to be fair, their campaign was first targeted at the Muslim religious establishment. It was only after the refusal of the custodians of Islam in India, that these women rights activists decided to move court and they are absolutely well within their right to do so.

It is agonizing to see that the Muslim religious establishment is not even ready to grant very basic changes within the existing personal law. All that the Muslim women’s groups are demanding is the abolition of triple Talaq. This in itself is a very conservative demand. In no way, this demand is questioning the unilateral right of divorce granted to Muslim men by Islam.

All that they are arguing is that instead of one sitting, Talaq should be pronounced in three sittings as is the Quranic norm. By no measure does this demand question the basic asymmetry of power in Islam between men and women. And yet for the AIMPLB, this demand becomes akin to questioning the very basics of Islam. But perhaps the problem is different. And it has to do with the non-Islamic nature of Indian courts. And yet they have no problem in seeking relief from the same courts to protect their conservative interests. Such hypocrisy has been the distinct nature of Indian Muslim leadership for quite some decades now. And that’s why it suits them not to talk about reforms and the issues raised by women’s groups but to talk about a Uniform Civil Code so as to deflect attention from real issues. It would be advisable for women’s groups and all concerned that they stay focussed on their demand for the abrogation of triple Talaq and not fall for a pseudo debate on the viability of a uniform civil code.

Arshad Alam is a columnist


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