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May 11, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Them Counterfeits & Their Contentious Issues

Two Sundays ago, Star News's political editor reiterated that network's attitude towards the BJP: damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't. This time around, it is over the BJP's decision to forego its own election manifesto and to opt, instead, for a revised National Agenda For Governance that had been adopted by the BJP-led coalition in March last year.

So there we had Rajdeep Sardesai, the brash "political editor", putting Narendra Modi, a BJP general secretary, in the dock. The aggressive accusation was that the BJP had forsaken, just for the sake of seizing power again in the forthcoming polls, two of its contentious issues: (a) the Ram temple at Ayodhya and (b) the Uniform Civil Code.

Now Narendra Modi is no novice. He is competent to give an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, especially to someone as semi-baked as Sardesai, But knowing that discretion is the better part of valour, particularly on the idiot box, and that tit for tat could mean that the hangman also dies, particularly on the prejudiced Star network, Modi was neither defensive nor offensive in his response.

But if truth be told, what the dickens is wrong with withholding one's belief in deference to the wishes of partners? If, on the wildest assumption, Sardesai wants to go to London to take up a job with the BBC but his family members want him to stick to Star News for the time being, and if he accepts the majority view, what is disdainful or sinful with that decision?

In any case, what is disdainful or sinful about the BJP's earlier stated position on those two "contentious" issues?

Regarding Ayodhya, the commitment of the BJP was stated on page 4 of its 1998 election manifesto. But see, see carefully, the nature of that commitment. That manifesto said, "The BJP will explore all consensual, legal and constitutional means to facilitate the construction of Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya." Note that the emphasis is to "explore" and the means are meant to be strictly legit, without coercion; the end too is only "to facilitate construction." Now what, Jesus Christ! is wrong with that? What is wrong if, out of a billion Indians, the temple instilled the "feel good" factor in some 82 million Hindus, excluding the "secular" Sardesais? Would it be anti-secular? Would it be communal? We'll come to that issue later.

Let us take on the other "contentious" issue: the Uniform Civil Code. That three-word phrase occurs in the BJP's 1998 manifesto on page 29 under the chapter on Empowerment of Women, And what is said there is: "To harness the full potential of Nari Shakti, the BJP will…4) Entrust the Law Commission to form a Uniform Civil Code based on the progressive practices from all traditions. This Code will: (a) Give women property rights; (b) Ensure women's right to adopt; (c) Guarantee women equal guardianship rights; (d) Remove discriminatory clauses in divorce laws; (e) Put an end to polygamy; (f) Make registration of all marriages mandatory."

What, Jesus Christ! is wrong with that aim? Even all anti-BJP women like the liberated, self-actualised Shabana Azmi (who, remember, willingly did lesbian scenes on the silver screen) ought to support such a Code --- provided they honestly live up to the image they have created.

Why, even the semi-baked Sardesai will shout for it hoarser than his usual self if he only did a bit of reading: the alimony case decided by a division bench of the Bombay high court last Tuesday.

The case pertained to Jaitunbi Sheikh who received the news of her divorce on October 29, 1986 through a letter written by her husband, Fakhruddin Mubarak Sheikh. With that letter she also got a money order of Rs 125 as her meher, which she refused. On her challenging the divorce, the court of the judicial first magistrate granted her a monthly sum of Rs 300 from her husband. The sessions court upheld the husband's appeal that under the Muslim Women's Act, the divorced woman had no claim to maintenance after he had sent her the legal divorce notice on November 10, 1987.

The sessions court based its verdict on Section 3(1)(A) of the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which provides that a "fair and reasonable provision for maintenance would have to be made within the iddat period of three months after the divorce." However, on a complaint by Jaitunbai, the division bench of the Bombay high court expanded the provisions of the "iddat period maintenance" and held that it is within that time that a husband would have to make provision for the entire life of the woman he was divorcing.

Thus, unless the Supreme Court turns that verdict down, Jaitunbi Sheikh will get in 1999 what, by natural justice norms, she should have got 13 years ago. Such injustice to any Indian woman would have been inconceivable in the first place if there were a Uniform Civil Code in our country wherein a Rehanabai and a Radhabai would be on an equal footing in the matter of their civil rights.

That brings us squarely enough to secularism. Were Sardesai to again do just a bit of reading as well as a little bit of soul-searching, some startling truth would be revealed to Star News.

Truth number one is that the Constitution of India was not always "secular" as is widely propagated. Right from the time it came into effect on January 26, 1950 till 26 years later, our Constitution did not, repeat, did not, contain the word "secular", just as it did not contain the word "socialist". Both those words were brought in only by the 42nd Amendment effected during the dictatorial and diabolical Emergency period of Indoor Gandhi. Any political rhetoric that "secularism" was the doctrine incorporated by our founding fathers is thus so much poppycock.

Attempts to do that were, of course, made. Subhash Kashyap, a renowned expert on constitutional law, has recorded that "At least twice in the Constituent Assembly efforts were made through amendments to make a specific mention of the principle of secularism in the constitution. For example, an amendment had sought to ensure that no law could be made which discriminates between man and man on the basis of religion, or applies to adherents of any one religion and leaves others untouched. All such amendments were summarily rejected…" And do you know who so rejected them? Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar!

Indeed, Dr Ambedkar --- who is popularly perceived as being the author of our Constitution --- made it amply clear later during the parliamentary debate on the Hindu Code Bill that he did not believe that our Constitution was secular insofar as it permitted different treatment to various communities and the legislatures to frame separate laws for different communities. By that logic of a toweringly erudite man, an integral ingredient and component of "secularism" is … a Uniform Civil Code! QED.

Instead, see the kind of "secularism" we have in actual operation. Our Constitution recognises various religions and religious organisations. It can also extend financial assistance to religious organisations, change, regulate and end certain religious practices. It legitimises distinctions on the basis of community and caste and allows public celebration of religious functions.

Political dignitaries publicly participate in religious festivals; they honour and pay obeisance to religious leaders. The administration of public places of worship is entrusted to government officers and at least one state government spends millions of rupees for conducting elections for a religious committee.

What kind of secularism then is being mouthed by those several Singhs (V P and Harkishen, Arjun and Amar) and those Yadavs of the Mulayam and Laloo variety? Is our meaning of secularism something entirely different from what all dictionaries say it means? There surely is a dire need for what all others have evaded like the plague but the BJP has long demanded: a national debate on secularism.

There is need, too, for a review of our Constitution which has been amended 78 times since its inception. In the context of the current World Cup mood, that equation gives an astonishing "strike rate" of 1.59 amendments a year! And the latest confidence-cum-conscience vote as well as the caretaker versus undertaker government controversy has cried for even more amendments.

But even that Constitutional review advocated in the 1998 election manifesto of the BJP and in the Vajpayee-led coalition's National Agenda For Governance last year is looked upon with deep suspicion by the various Singhs and Sardesais.

Fie, then, on them counterfeits and their contentious issues.

The Constitution Review Debate

Arvind Lavakare

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