By G Pramod Kumar
Local Muslim woman dressed in a in black Burqa is walking pass a wall painting in the city of Bangalore, India. The wall painting is in primary colours and shows a local woman in a red sari dress. | Felix Hug via Getty Images
Other than making Muslims look bad and India a little more legally reformed, does the present political clamour for a Uniform Civil Code mean anything?
Not really, because on matters pertaining to civil laws, most of India is still driven by customs and the alleged bad practices of marriage, extra-judicial divorce and inheritance among Muslims are exaggerated in their pervasiveness.
And by fighting the proposal for uniform civil laws, the Muslims, or rather their self-claimed representatives are reinforcing these myths and playing into the hands of politicians who are looking for the perpetual polarisation of India.
What will the Uniform Civil Code do to Muslims that their organisations are so worried about?
The most abused myth that the right wing propagandists brandish is that Muslims marry multiple times and divorce without going to court on the strength of their personal laws; but the fact of the matter is that Muslims in India are better behaved than others when it comes to polygamy. The 1961 census (it’s old, but that’s the latest to look at this issue) had said this unequivocally, and the findings of a 1974 study by the government had endorsed it.
According to the 1961 census, Muslims had the least incidence of polygamy (5.7 per cent) in India compared to other communities (5.8 per cent), while the 1974 study found that polygamy among Muslims was only 5.6 per cent compared to 5.8 per cent among upper caste Hindus.
In fact, tribals should be more worried than Muslims because it’s more than 15 per cent among them.
So, will a Uniform Civil Code adversely affect the marital practices of Muslims? No, because they are the best behaved in India on that front. Then why worry? Available data in fact exposes the fallacy of such codified laws when societies are unable to rid themselves of their age-old customs.
If polygamy among Muslims is lower than among Hindus, the incidence of extra-judicial “Talaq” also cannot be high because one needs to marry more to divorce more. Obviously, the whole idea of pervasive and indiscriminate “Talaq” is also a myth.
Now, the next critical issue of inheritance.
Although it’s more complex in terms of interpretation, in simple reading, Muslim women get only half the property that men get while the Hindu women can claim an equal share.
That is what the law says. But is it the way how it works?
Not really. It depends on the family and lesser known details of Muslim personal law. Ask Muslim families and women. There are many families that give more share of property to women than men while in many Hindu families, men may get more than the women. And the law pertains only to family property. Bulk of the property that men and women get to inherit these days are willed to them, which incidentally is not governed by any law, but by the will of the father, mother or whoever owns it.
Seen in this light, Muslim women in fact are better off than Hindu women because in their law, the girl has a right even over the self-acquired property. Moreover, a Muslim cannot bequeath more than one-third of his/her total property, which means the rest is equally shared among the heirs irrespective of their gender. This makes a huge difference because most of the property that people get to inherit nowadays is self-acquired.
There is more:
A Muslim woman can inherit property as a daughter, widow, grandmother, mother, or son’s daughter. Frankly, the Muslim law works better for women and experts have even suggested adopting it into national law.
In other words, the idea of inheritance operates in a space that is governed by customs, values and family practices than law. This is borne out by facts. If women indeed got a better share of properties among Hindus, who constitute 80 per cent of the population, the status of property rights of women in India wouldn't have been as pathetic as it is today. Even Nepal has a better story on women inheriting property.
So, even on inheritance, it’s a myth.
So, what’s the whole fuss about?
For progressive thinkers, Uniform Civil Code is a good idea because it considers everybody equal. But for the right-wing propagandists, it’s a bogey to target and stigmatise the Muslims. And by resisting it, the Muslims will reinforce the myths attributed to their personal lives and actually help the right-wing’s sinister political strategy.
Instead of opposing it, it’s high time Muslims themselves asked for a Uniform Civil Code and stopped its never-ending misuse as a political strategy.