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Uniform Civil Code: India's coercive search for a common code

JOHN DAYAL | Updated on: 10 July 2016, 2:31 IST
Problems run deep
  • It is almost impossible for the country to find a code that is common to all religions
  • This might be a not-so-subtle way to enforce a Hindu Civil Code
Not an easy task
  • No one religion can speak for another, especially in this diverse country
  • The caste factor also dominates the religious discourse
More in the story
  • Is there a solution to these differences?
  • Can there be an ideal Uniform Civil Code?

The rumbling noise of a Uniform Civil Code has the predictability of the monsoons with which it coincides very closely this year.

It is a rabble rouser, more subtle than perhaps the contentious issue of temples, but leaves no one in any doubt about the villains who need to be shown their place.

After encouraging non-state actors to enforce the Directive Principle of State Policy on a ban on cow slaughter, sometimes with lynchings, it seems easy to ban triple-talaq by Muslims, and in the process, ending the four marriages everyone says are responsible for the huge increase in the population of the community.

The global Islamophobia resulting from the terrible carnage wrought on innocents, most of them Muslims, by the Daesh, or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, provides just the right backdrop of a friendly and informal national referendum on the subject, albeit mostly on television debates.

It seems safe to assume that no one will question if this is another snide way to enforce Hindu uniformity on the country, much in the manner that the ban on cow slaughter is now expanded nationally, barring a few islands such as Goa, Nagaland and Kerala.

It also silences the long-running demand that the statutes be purged of everything that favours one religion over another, including the Hindu Undivided Family Act on Taxation, and Article 341 (III) - which limits affirmative action for scheduled castes only if they promise to remain Hindus.

And, as a final encouragement, there is the support not only from some groups of Muslim women but from the head of one of the richest and politically most powerful Christian denominations.

Also read- With an eye on UP2017, is Uniform Civil Code BJP's next jumla?

Just the right people

Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro Malabar Rite of the Catholic Church has welcomed Narendra Modi's move saying: "The Uniform Civil Code would be useful for strengthening the unity of the country and its people."

He did not elaborate, though added the statutory caution that hopefully, the government would consult everyone and "would consider laws based on traditions and conventions".

Cardinal Alencherry had invited Modi to address the community in the wake of a national outcry over attacks on churches and institutions in 2014-15.

The Christian community in India is perhaps the most diverse in the world, and no religious or political leader can claim to speak for everyone.

The strictly patriarchal Catholic religious leadership also invites scepticism from its own women members who have for years been demanding a greater religious role from their present limits.

The North East Tribals, the central Indian Adivasis, the millions of converts from the Dalit communities, and groups claiming descent from 4th-century Syrian migrants, Brahmin families, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British missionaries mingle, and keep aloof, in myriad ways.

Many, if not most, continue to maintain strong cultural and ethnological linkages, for good or for bad, with their with various Hindu counterparts. Caste is the most visible and pernicious remnant.

Many would see this as another attempt to erode or hijack their identities.

Debatable laws

They have found ways to circumvent the anti-dowry laws, some men are in the Supreme Court ineffectually trying to, in fact, make divorce easier through friendly clergy interpretation of religious Canon laws.

Catholics in parts of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh prefer to marry their first cousins. On the West coast and up North and East, this could invite a community wrath almost as severe as some Haryana Khaps. No one gets murdered of course.

The hills of the North Eastern states have some communities with a matrilineal descent and inheritance tradition. And as recent Family Synod surveys bring to light, there are issues of unrecorded, but commonly known, polygamy and children born of such bonds go without any rights to property or other inheritance - not even the surname.

Need for reforms

Presently there is an urgent need for reforms in the community. The government has a role to play in updating the four personal laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption which were enacted by the British after Queen Victoria took over from the East India Company.

The Joint Women's Programme of the Christian community, eventually supported by the Bishops of various denominations, has waged its battle for gender just and modern laws. But the National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was not very enthusiastic in heeding their appeal.

It was during those interactions that Archbishop Alan de Lastic, the charismatic Archbishop of Delhi and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, repeatedly asked Vajpayee to tell the nation their vision of a Uniform Civil Code.

Vajpayee hemmed and hawed, but never did spell it out. De Lastic cautioned him that a Hindu code by another name would not be accepted. This author was present in some of these conversations.

"Not Common Code, but a Uniform Code is necessary, which contained the best practices of all, and which communities could draw upon to govern themselves," the Archbishop repeatedly said.

It was also pointed out that the Goa Common Civil Code enunciated by the Portuguese rulers, ironically touted by the BJP government as something worth considering, was revealed not to be so gender just and equitable.

Via the Goa Common Civil Code, a Hindu was allowed two wives if he so wished. But a Muslim husband was barred from a second marriage despite the Sharia law.

Scope for change

Hopefully, the Law Commission's process of devising its report after listening to stakeholders will be an opportunity to refresh the old questions and the old demands.

But the stake-holders' interventions will depend on what the government considers to be the ideal Civil Code. Or rather, it will be what the BJP-RSS want.

There are more than two dozen reports of the Law Commission since its inception focusing on religious issues which also need to be taken into account together with various rulings of the high courts and the Supreme Court since 1947.

They also must keep in mind that high courts can be very erratic in such things, and some rulings are quite retrograde.

The new discourse will also reveal the complexity of the issue. It is easy to target the Muslim community, using the desire and aspirations of its women.

But as the Mumbai jurist and activist Flavia Agnes points out, the secular lobbies place gender on a neutral terrain distinct from contemporary political events. There is a tendency to project the demand for an all-encompassing UCC as a magic wand that will eliminate the woes and sufferings of Indian women in general, and minority women in particular.

On another level, within a communally vitiated political climate, the demand carries an agenda of 'national integration'. The demand is also laden with the moral subtext of abolishing polygamy and other 'barbaric' customs of the minorities and extending the egalitarian code of the 'enlightened majority' to them.

"Without abolishing caste among Hindus, how can we proceed towards a UCC?" one reflective individual questioned, turning the mirror inwards.

This line of reflection brings up the issue of honour killings. Flavia seems to hint that the UCC discussion will be lost eventually in the same political compulsions that have revived it once again in this election season.

The Directive Principles are silent on annihilating caste, the subject so dear to the heart of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

That silence may well ensure that the UCC goes back into the folds of the directive principles until the next time there is a need to bring it out to polarise another electoral debate.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

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First published: 10 July 2016, 2:31 IST