Support Uniform Civil Code to strengthen democracy, especially gender equality
Whether adding challenges to national integrity would strengthen democracy is moot. But these matters are not central to how the Opposition, in particular, Congress, should respond to BJP’s UCC move. Right now, Congress has chosen discreet silence, saying it has to see the specific proposals put forward by BJP on UCC before it reveals its stand. This will not sustain.
How should Congress and other opposition parties respond to BJP‘s proposal to enact a Uniform Civil Code (UCC)? The answer to this question has only a small area of overlap with the desirability of such a code for India, with its great variety in social custom, tradition, and a complex history of territorial accretion predicated on non-interference with local laws and custom. For a political party, how to respond to a potentially divisive legislative proposal is intimately connected to the likely political fallout of its response.
For BJP, UCC is part of its Hindutva agenda. On its part, Congress governments down the line conducted reforms of Hindu custom via five laws: Hindu Marriage Act 1955, Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act 1956, Hindu Succession Act 1956, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act 1956, and Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005.
These whittled down male privilege among Hindus, even as Muslim personal law retains male privilege. Hindu men traditionally used to have multiple wives. But the new laws made monogamy the norm, even as Muslims can have four wives. Reform laws give Hindu women, for the first time, the right to divorce and the right to inherit ancestral property.
Such expansion of women’s rights is deemed to somehow shrink the Hindu’s manliness. By refracting this anxiety through a confused mix of Islamophobia and the notion that population grows via the number of wives a man has – rather than the number of children a woman bears – Hindutva propaganda projects India’s 14% Muslim population growing, over time, to become the majority community. UCC is seen as a remedy to this threat. In this dimension, UCC is politics, primed to feed pro-BJP sentiments in the run-up to the general elections of 2024.
All personal laws privilege men over women, and, thus, violate democracy’s promise of equality and non-discrimination. Reforming personal laws to secure equality and gender justice would strengthen democracy.
Uniformity, or commonality, of the civil code for all regions and cultures of India, is a different matter. It would entail breaking the promise made to Nagas and Mizos, for example, to not interfere in their customs, and could feed secessionist sentiments that are active to varying degrees in the region. Whether adding challenges to national integrity would strengthen democracy is moot.
But these matters are not central to how the Opposition, in particular, Congress, should respond to BJP’s UCC move. Right now, Congress has chosen discreet silence, saying it has to see the specific proposals put forward by BJP on UCC before it reveals its stand. This will not sustain.
In Uttarakhand, a draft law on UCC has been prepared, after 13 months of consultations, public hearings, and a drafting committee headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court. Congress will have to take a stand on the Uttarakhand Bill to introduce UCC sooner rather than later.
The core political issue is not forcing a common code on Mizos, Nagas, or the plains populations. The core issue is changing Muslim personal law. Ridding it of gross iniquity arising from gender inequality is desirable; imposition of Hindutva will on Muslims is reprehensible. How should Congress respond?
Congress should support reform of personal laws to render them gender-equal and non-discriminatory across faiths. The real challenge is how to frame this standpoint:
Undemocratic custom, whether caste discrimination or inferior rights for women, violates democracy. Instituting such features into the law weakens democracy.
Strong democracy alone protects minority rights, which cannot include any right to spurn democratic norms. Minorities should give up undemocratic bits of tradition to strengthen democracy and, thereby, legitimate minority rights.
BJP cannot be defeated by smart moves to beat them at their own game. Rajiv Gandhi’s experiments with appeasement, first with Shah Bano, and later with the shilanyas for the Ayodhya temple, should have made this clear. The vigorous strengthening of democracy alone can counter Hindutva politics.
Even BJP cannot seek to reform just Muslim laws. Discrimination against women in adoption, divorce, and inheritance by agnate and cognate relatives scars Hindu laws even today. Advocate cleansing all personal laws of gender bias, to bring about uniform standards of non-discrimination.
Strengthening democracy can win over broad sections of all communities in the long run. Only the disgruntled, drawn to the extreme fringe, will be permanently put off.
The article was first published in The Economic Times as ” An Opposition Pro UCC- Plan” on July 04, 2023
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