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UCC or Hindu Civil Code?

August 04, 2003 12:49 IST

Arvind Sharma, a professor at McGill University, Canada, is considered one of the most knowledgeable scholars on Hinduism. In a book on the world's religions he edited, he sought to explain the Hindu's reverential obsession with the cow, a creature eaten by Hindus millennia ago.

Sharma's explanation for the symbolism is that after the Muslim invasions, defensive Hindus rallied around the cow as a symbol and identity of Hinduism. The bigger the Muslim victories in India, the greater the passion with which Hindus defended cows even as they lost kingdoms to invading armies.

Today, as stray cows roam the streets eating garbage and often die with kilograms of plastic in their stomachs, killing a cow leads to street violence.

Defending the cow has come to symbolise Hindu pride even if the cow is treated as badly as stray dogs.

Communities on the defensive tend to pick on certain symbols as representative of the community or faith and then defend that symbol even if everything else around is crumbling.

That is the situation that typifies the Indian Muslim's defence of Muslim personal laws. Indian Muslims today believe their personal laws are sacred, derived from the Koran and the Shariat, and are non-changeable.

The Supreme Court's call for a Uniform Civil Code has once more ignited a sharp debate. Tragically, the debate only shows the deep cleavage between Hindus and Muslims: Most Hindus want a UCC, most Muslims (but let me hasten to add, not all), are against any change in the present set up.

Ever since the Babri Masjid was destroyed and hundreds of Muslims killed in riots in 1992-1993 and again in 2002, most Muslims have come to distrust most Hindus in general and loath and fear the Hindu right, the very groups that are vociferously demanding a UCC.

The more defensive this community cowering in their ghettos becomes, the more they will defend their personal laws.

At moments like these, rational conviction or reasoning on the need for better laws helps little.

After all, isn't it the Hindus who insist it is their faith that tells them the cow is sacred or that Lord Ram was born at a particular spot even if evidence is lacking?

Dozens of countries that call themselves Islamic and seek to implement Islamic laws from one of the various jurisprudence schools of Islam have implemented laws overriding sections of the Shariat, especially those that deal with marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property rights. And rightly so. One cannot progress riding on the wheels of the past.

Yet, in doing so, some pertinent points must be looked into.

First, there is no doubt that India needs uniform laws. Criminal and commercial laws are common, so there is little reason for civil (personal) laws to be different. It only divides Indians on the basis of religion, something that shouldn't happen in the 21st century.

Moreover, personal laws, in the name of religious identity, tend to follow the most obscurantist practises (remember Shah Bano?). The most well known (and most quoted) are the laws that allow Muslim men to have four wives simultaneously, they can get a divorce by simply uttering the word 'talaq' thrice, or allows girls barely into puberty to marry.

The fact that women have no such reciprocating rights means these laws are unequal and give men tremendous power over the fairer sex. No wonder most Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have simply done away with such laws or amended them suitably.

It is also true that obscurantist religious practises cannot be merely wished away. There is always an element of force in changing them. When William Bentinck abolished sati, a number of Hindus opposed him for 'interfering' in Hindu customs. But Bentinck, with admirable support from Raja Ram Mohan Roy (arguably the first modern Indian) prevailed. Emperor Akbar had first sought to ban sati but faced a massive backlash from his Hindu subjects, forcing him to give up his effort.

Thus, any change in the law will be opposed by some, but laws have to be changed to keep up with the changing times. It is up to the rulers of the day to rally those who back such changes and implement laws that reflect the 21st century.

But looking at only the Muslim laws, which the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associates such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would love to do, is frankly less than half the story.

The truth is India needs a uniform civil code that will simply no longer tolerate any discrimination between the sexes and is fair to all humans concerned, religions be damned.

If, as Hindus say, it is not fair for Muslim women to share their husbands with other women or be divorced by three words, it is also unfair that in Hindu inheritance rights, sons, and not daughters, can inherit property. Or that a wife has fewer rights than her in-laws over her husband's property, but a husband has more rights than his in-laws over his wife's property. Or that in Christian law, a husband can get a divorce on grounds of adultery, while a wife has to prove adultery and cruelty. Such examples abound and need urgent rectification.

Changing such laws won't be easy to implement. A few weeks ago, a family dispute between the erstwhile rulers of Baroda, the Gaekwads, saw a male member claim that his female relative had no right to inherit any property. Hindu business houses would be appalled if daughters were to inherit a share of the business (when did any daughter inherit a business, unless she is an only child?). These lobbies would frankly not want any change that would hit at the very heart of centuries-old customs.

If the UCC has to have any chance of succeeding, it will only happen if religious bigots of every faith are kept out of the law-making process. And the laws enacted to ensure the spirit of equality and justice. Then, we can be sure the UCC is fair to all!

Second, the great fear, and this is not just among the Muslims but even among fair-minded liberal Hindus, is that the ruling BJP, often hostage to the VHP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, will not give us a UCC but a Hindu Civil Code; a set of laws that not only show little respect for Muslims and Christians, but seek laws that reflect Hindu society at its worst, creating a patriarchal, feudal, casteist set-up.

How can we ever expect religious heads to make liberal laws? Some years ago, a shankaracharya even justified the caste system!

Third, why just the UCC? When the Supreme Court said it is a matter of shame that a Directive Principle of State has not been implemented even after 50 years of Independence, one is obliged to ask the Lordships about other Directive Principles.

Let me just take one: the Directive Principle asking the State to provide universal education to all. Is this Principle, something that should have been the first to be implemented if only to raise India to a great power and afford all Indians a better quality of life, any less important than a UCC?

This is especially pertinent considering that most of India's literate or semi-literate come from the scheduled castes, backward castes and the poorer Muslims, the very sections who have been most neglected. Why is the Supreme Court forgetting them?

Is there a way out? Yes. The country can begin by categorically preferring rationality over religion, reason over rhetoric. It can commence by passing a law making education up to Class 10 compulsory for every child anywhere in India and invoking punitive measures for parents who disobey. Setting up a panel of eminent jurists to create a UCC with some basic rules. The laws must treat men, women, and all humans equal.

Hindus could also start by asking themselves some questions: Why are they so keen on banning the consumption of beef by others? Or insisting that in Ayodhya, faith alone justifies every demand.

The Universal Civil Code Debate

Amberish K Diwanji