Uniform Civil Code or Gender Just Laws

 

Ram Puniyani

 

The current atmosphere (October 2016) is charged with the intense and passionate debates around Uniform Civil Code (UCC). There is couple of petitions from Muslim women which are pending in the Supreme Court. To this the Central Government filed an affidavit, which argues against the practice of triple talaq. At the same time the Law Commission has circulated a questionnaire inviting the opinion of people on the matters pertaining to UCC. This questionnaire covers some aspects of personal laws, particularly those related to Muslims and Christians and cursorily also takes up just one facet of Hindu law related to inheritance. The impression created is that the ruling Government is trying to push forward its agenda of UCC. There is some ground for this perception. Since the time of Shah Bano Judgment the RSS Combine has been pushing forward UCC as a core of Hindutva agenda.

 

As such UCC debate is fairly old. In the constituent assembly the matters rested with the opinion that state should strive to achieve UCC. This understanding was put in the directive principles of state policy and not as a fundamental right. There is a long and vexed history of personal laws in India. British had evolved the laws pertaining to civil and criminal laws, which are uniform irrespective of religion. In matters of personal laws, particularly marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance the customary practices of the dominant religious communities were put together and given the status of law. Needless to say most of the practices are product of patriarchal mindset and are not giving justice to the women cutting across all the religions. The first attempt to streamline the personal laws was done by Nehru-Ambedkar duo in the form of Hindu Code bill. The idea presumably was that since the Hindus are a majority the reform among Hindus will pave the way for reform among all the communities in due course.

 

As the matters stood, Ambedkar who was at the centre of evolving this Bill did know that present laws are unjust and in his Bill gender justice was the foundation of the whole exercise. The response of conservative sections of Hindu society was severe opposition to the bill. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India also opposed the bill. It was diluted giving a large space to customary practices to satisfy the conservatives. Interestingly the Hindu Code bill also extended to Sikhs, Jain and Buddhists Since there was space for prevalent practices to be given the status of law most of the gender unjust things were brought in Hindu Code Bill. Special marriage act also came in as a law applicable to all, but it is just an option not a compulsion.

 

With rising communal violence in the society the Muslim minorities felt intimidated and made the Muslim Personal Law as a matter of preserving their identity in the society dominated by majoritarian politics. There are two groups of people articulating for reform in laws amongst Muslims in particular. First group is large number of Muslim women. Among the petitions with the Supreme Court one is that from Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which holds that the present practice of triple talaq is un Islamic. There are many stalwarts of Islam who do hold that the present such practice has no place in Koran. They, along with many other Muslim women’s groups, have been ceaselessly campaigning for the just and equal rights for Muslim women. One has to extend solidarity with them for trying to reform the laws in a society which is otherwise intimidated by the dominant communalism in our country.

 

The second group is very vocal about justice to Muslim women is that of RSS combine. While it seems they are aggressively stating these things, it’s their politics which creates the situation of violence against religious minorities. They were at forefront of opposing Hindu Code Bill. They constantly raise issues like Ram Temple and Holy Cow for example. While personal law issue raised on their platforms sounds ok, their intentions are suspect. They are totally quiet about the lop-sided laws of inheritance, lesser rights of girls in their parent’s property, while taking advantage of taxation as Hindu United family. It is due to this that the minorities suspect their intentions behind such moves. On the top of that the questionnaire circulated by the Law Commission also is very partial. In current political scenario where the BJP-RSS have and open agenda of UCC, the things sound frightening. On the top of this while so much noise is being made on this issue there is no provisional draft of UCC. One is sure that such a draft is not being mooted deliberately as a large section of Hindus want to stick to their customary practices and don’t want to lose the advantages which they enjoy due to present lop sided laws.

We are living in strange times. There is no accepted draft which is supposed be the law (UCC) so why this whole exercise. For BJP-RSS it is a dog –whistle to polarize the communities along religious lines. What should be the response of the communities? First the law commission needs to revise the questionnaire to make it fair to all the communities. The national consultations with women’s groups of all religions are needed to evolve the code. Already there are many an attempts to draft model charters. Can there be a meeting ground between different communities to put up a draft which is just to women?

To say that uniformity increases the national integration, actually holds no water. In many countries there are diverse laws on the same issue. We need to also understand that the primary need of today’s society is gender justice; uniformity cannot be the starting point. The process has to begin bottom up, by giving security to minorities and to encourage reform from within. One hopes the archaic practices like triple talaq are delegitimized as an important step towards gender just laws.