Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 6, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

Make the Uniform Civil Code voluntary!

The Uniform Civil Code, as proposed by conservative political parties, remains close enough to the front burner that we can be sure that it will be a fixture of many political debates in the near future. With an election around the corner, it is all the more likely that the UCC will become a focal issue. Indeed, BJP president L K Advani recently suggested that while political compulsions might have removed Mathura and Kashi from the party's platform, the civil code remains very much on. As, in fact, it should.

On the one hand, it is seen as a necessary principle in the search for equal justice for all. At the same time, there is the definite concern among minorities that it can become a weapon of religious oppression. It is quite unclear which of these offers the more accurate description, but these positions have remained so far apart that a meeting of the minds that hold them is unlikely.

There is a simple solution -- make it voluntary.

There are several reasons to try this approach, but the foremost of them is that a voluntary code does not alter any existing truths. Any member of any community, be it one of faith or caste, signs on to the code by choice. Any citizen of India who feel that common civil codes can become detrimental to his security can turn to the built-in safety switch -- don't volunteer. That way, everyone will retain all the protection they currently hold dear.

Somewhat more significantly, such a scheme will serve two other purposes which are just as important. One, it will separate the individual opinions from that of the communities to which they belong. In any society, when the leadership professes a standard line, it hides any sign of underlying diversity in opinion. A system based on individual preferences instead of community averages will reveal any existing diversity of opinion, and also provide opportunity for such diversity to be fully expressed.

Even more satisfying, a voluntary code can become the rallying point of a national consciousness about civil society. People who sign on to the code, over time, will come to be seen as true participants in national cohesion. Those who retain their preference for their particular religiously motivated civil standard will be seen as uninterested, even unworthy. Imagine how many women might prefer to marry a "civil" man, instead of one who can hide behind the patriarchy of existing laws.

A voluntary exercise does not diminish faith in any way. In fact, it recognises the difference between the religious establishment and the state. and will facilitate the separation of faith from civil laws. Signing up to be a "civil" Indian will not detract from anyone's religious habits, it will merely uphold a social standard that we, individually and voluntarily, agree to live by. Conservative opinion in the US offers at least one good example of this.

Abortion on demand is widely available in America, but that does not diminish the religious habits of those who wish to remain faithful to religious doctrine. Conservative Christians in the US have always opposed the availability of abortion, but society has more or less settled on the fact that they themselves can refrain from having abortions if they so wish, but other women must retain the right to make their own choices. Once faith is separated from social conduct, the right to choose is seen as the important pillar that it is.

In this scenario, participating in the civil code will become a badge of integrity and Indian-ness at the same time. Do we not witness a thousand matrimonial classifieds that state "caste no bar"? And do we not take pride in the cross-caste or cross-religious marriages that crop up every so often? The simple morality of regular Joes will automatically make participation in the civil code a similar expression of decency.

The voluntary scheme will be no more difficult to administer than the cumbersome system that already exists. "Uniform" will become another religion-designate, and will take the place of "Hindu", or "Jain" or whatever else gets put on one's birth certificate. And being voluntary, one can convert into and out of this category just as readily as in endless exercise of changing religious affiliation that currently go on around the country.

I can imagine that at least a few voices will contend that this suggestion represents a dilution of the principle that all Indians should be treated equally. And that budging from that stance is akin to yielding to the threat of religious tension. I contend otherwise.

Too often, in resolving difficult issues, we have remained confrontational. That has erased the middle ground on which we could have built a national identity that includes everyone. An incremental approach might work a lot better. The voluntary code will provide the first step in such incrementalism. An imaginative combination of concern and pragmatism can do much more that patriotic fervour and religious chest-beating.

For moderates among the conservatives, this offers the additional opportunity to find their own feet within the political spectrum. When Vajpayee was forced to step down as prime minister, the echoes of "right man in the wrong party" were bouncing around everywhere. Whether he represents a tiny minority of moderates within the conservative movement, or truly speaks for most conservatives, is still unknown. The most often heard voices of conservative opinion continue to resemble Ashok Singhal's intransigence and Sena propaganda more that Vajpayee's professed moderation.

Whereas the political objectives of the right may be dear to millions, it must in fairness be acknowledged that some of the tactics employed by the leadership has left many people despairing, even perhaps guilty. This has largely been possible because the voice of moderation within the conservative parties is usually suppressed, or too isolated. Without that marginalisation, would Govindacharya have dared to call Vajpayee a mask? Could he call Advani a mask and get away with it?

If Vajpayee must be the standard bearer of the party so that it is more acceptable to others, then it is essential that there be more people like him in the party. If you don't believe that, ask yourself this -- if not Vajpayee, who? If he retires, resigns or dies, does the party's attempt at presenting a moderate face go down the tubes, or will there be others to fill his shoes? Truly, the cultural conservatives do not have a sufficient number of moderates to become acceptable to others.

Yet it is inevitable that the right will capture power, if not now then soon enough. Once the cultural conservatives are in power, the nation will need voices of moderation within the party to ensure that extremist elements don't go overboard with their zeal. Just as surely as Hindutva has broad support, anything that resembles over-reaching actions can quickly crumble that support.

Whether it is the construction of the Ram temple, or knocking family-planning ads off Doordarshan, we will reap the level of tolerance, sense and moderation that we sow. By acting now, moderates can position themselves to act as guardians of the public interest during any future government of the right.

A voluntary code will achieve one final thing that is politically extremely desirable. The Congress and UF cannot go on pretending that they represent minority voices, when in reality their sole position is that minorities should be treated distinctly and nourished as reliable vote-banks. Confronted with a voluntary civil code, they will have to choose between developing a national identity borne of togetherness or continuing to indulge in fractious and damaging politics.

In its voluntary form, the civil code will be the appropriate first step in bridging the religious divide. At the same time, I do not propose that such voluntary action become a fixture, merely adding one more category to an endless list of castes or religions. Instead, the civil code, if enacted and nurtured by the voluntary participation of Indians of all faiths, can acquire the momentum needed to install itself as the law of the land.

Ultimately, any togetherness we build has to be borne of consensus. A voluntary code will give those who are uncertain of its implications an opportunity to explore such consensus without being bound by it.

Naturally, I would sign up. Would you?

Ashwin Mahesh

Tell us what you think of this column