The future of a Uniform Civil Code

It is plausible that a serious and honest exercise might end up causing more consternation among Hindus than Muslims

Updated - June 09, 2022 12:41 pm IST

Published - June 09, 2022 12:15 am IST

A protest against the idea of a Uniform Civil Code organised by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in Kolkata.

A protest against the idea of a Uniform Civil Code organised by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in Kolkata. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami recently set up a committee to prepare a draft Uniform Civil Code (UCC) for the State. Several leaders of BJP-ruled States have batted for a UCC in India. Though implementation of a UCC has been a key agenda of the BJP and has found a mention in the last two manifestos, the party’s regional leaders have been more vocal in championing this cause than its national leaders. One wonders whether the BJP is employing a bottom-up strategy to accomplish its long-standing ideological goal, by urging a few States to pass their respective UCCs so that it can use these for its national campaign for one.

Opposition to UCC

Muslim groups, particularly the Ulema, have been opposed to the idea of a UCC for a long time. The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, led by Mahmood Asad Madani, recently passed a resolution against a UCC at a meeting in Deoband which was attended by over 2,500 of its members. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has been consistently opposing a UCC because it fears that such a code will undermine Muslim identity. Indeed, it owes its existence to this fear. The AIMPLB was set up in 1973 at the initiative of Muhammad Taiyab, who was then Muhtamim of the Deoband madrasa. When H.R. Gokhale, as Law Minister, tabled an Adoption Bill in Parliament, which was not consistent with Muslim religious laws on guardianship, Muslim clergies were anxious. They saw the Bill as a precursor to a UCC. A small meeting took place in Deoband followed by a larger congregation in Mumbai on December 27-28, 1972. The AIMPLB was born four months later. The fear of a UCC and the preservation of Muslim personal law were the reasons for the formation of the AIMLAB. Over the years, the body began to champion diverse Muslim issues such as protection of disputed Islamic religious structures.

Ever since the passage of the Hindu Code Bill, the Hindu Right is of the view that Muslims are being pampered by being allowed to have their own personal laws in a Hindu majority country and therefore need to be ‘disciplined’ and brought under a UCC. In 1996, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a national debate on UCC during his speech against a no-confidence motion in Parliament. During the speech, he appreciated the practice of consent by brides in Muslim marriage rituals as progressive. One wonders how the Hindu Right would react if this practice is accepted as part of a UCC. Responding to the debate, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao cited the age-old tradition of marriages between uncles and nieces among Hindus in Andhra Pradesh, and challenged the BJP to address it. Should this tradition of Hindus of Andhra be abolished or be made applicable among Hindus outside Andhra? The truth is that there are plenty of customs and traditions in Hindu society that have to be creatively addressed to do justice to the idea of a UCC. Moreover, Flavia Agnes and other feminists have recognised many anti-women biases in the Hindu Code Bill, which are not adequately brought forward in Indian public debate. This has resulted in the public perception that Muslim personal laws alone need reform.

What will a UCC look like?

It is plausible that a serious and honest exercise might end up causing more consternation in Hindu society than in Muslim society. In an erudite inaugural remark, Upendra Baxi, in a workshop on ‘Dispelling Rhetorics: Law of Divorce and Gender Equality in Islam’ in 2017, said: “Do we know enough about the personal law of various tribal communities from which the UCC may choose?... Do we know enough about the religious personal law of other Indian communities? It is a sad mistake to think UCC is all about Hindu- Muslim relations and identities...”.

The BJP has been able to realise two of its key ideological agendas over the last eight years: abrogating special status for Jammu and Kashmir and facilitating the construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Comparatively speaking, the task of realising a UCC is not going to be easy. The truth is, the caste system which is integral to Hindu society celebrates hierarchy, which in turn is incompatible with the idea of uniformity or equality. Sadly, since independence, no group, either in favour of or against a UCC, has been able to prepare a text of what a UCC would realistically mean for a confusingly diverse Indian society. Given the toxic political climate of our time, it is plausible that the efforts by various BJP State-level regimes may lend a majoritarian spin to such an exercise. Such an outcome will raise the political temperature of numerous secular groups and religious minorities and invite enduring dissent against a UCC.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at the Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi, and is the author of a forthcoming book, ‘Sikwa- e- Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims’

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