July 04, 2020
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What If We Had A Uniform Civil Code?

It would have removed one of the most potent causes of inter-community misgivings in India. India would have been a modern, democratic and truly secular republic.

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What If We Had A Uniform Civil Code?
What If We Had A Uniform Civil Code?
A few things wouldn’t have happened if a uniform civil code (UCC) had been introduced when the Constitution was promulgated in 1950. For instance, there would have been no need for a separate Hindu Code Bill in 1955, which led to a virtual showdown between the community’s conservative and liberal sections, represented by then President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, respectively. Nehru would not have been accused, perhaps unfairly, of pushing the enactment through primarily to facilitate daughter Indira’s divorce from estranged husband Feroze Gandhi.

In later years, Khalistani separatists wouldn’t have agitated for declubbing the community from the purview of Hindu personal law. Their grouse was largely that under Hindu personal law, even married daughters are entitled to a share of the father’s property. Additionally, Catholic practices relating to marriage, adultery and divorce wouldn’t have been a cause of agitation in Kerala and other parts of South India. Consequently, equal treatment of women would have been the norm rather than the deviation among all religious denominations.

Most significantly, promulgation of a uniform civil code from Day 1 would have removed one of the most potent causes of inter-community misgivings in India. Hindu leaders would not have been able to point to the Muslim ‘privilege’ of taking four wives. Further, the scourge of triple talaq would not have been permissible under law. And, of course, vote-bank politics would not have encouraged Rajiv Gandhi to overturn the court verdict in the Shah Bano case, thereby entitling divorced Muslim women to alimony at par with similarly placed Hindu women.

India’s claim to being a sovereign ‘secular’ republic would have not been confined to the token introduction of this term (along with the even more phoney ‘socialist’) by Indira Gandhi during the draconian Emergency regime. This country would have been able to assert with pride that its Constitution is among the most progressive and egalitarian in the world; that its women are equal to its men in every sense, not only on account of their right to vote. Instead, we condemned ourselves to a society that wallows in double standards, where even the law, before which every citizen of the republic ought to be equal, is compelled to differentiate between communities. Worse, politics would not have taken the road to communal polarisation with consequences that we have all witnessed, especially since the Shah Bano verdict was cast aside in 1985 by the Congress using its brute majority in Parliament.

The paradox is that those who flaunt their ‘secularism’ with the exhibitionist zeal of a peacock strutting about on monsoon eve are brazenly hypocritical when it comes to the uniform civil code. In a recent TV debate, the secular icon of the English-language media, Javed Akhtar, made the astounding pronouncement that he had voluntarily accepted the UCC (mixing it up with the Special Marriages Act). His claim to living within the purview of the ‘UCC’ was that he divorced his first wife before marrying again. After extolling the virtues of his own action, Javed proceeded to insist he would never recommend the same code for his co-religionists. His only objection to the UCC was that the BJP favoured it.

This is another myth carefully spun by the ‘secularists’. Long before the BJP or even its parent party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was born, the makers of India’s Constitution had strongly recommended the formulation of common rules of marriage and succession. That’s why the directive principles of the Constitution specifically enjoin the state to move towards the enactment of a UCC. In other words, it is its sacrosanct responsibility to implement it, just as it is the state’s bounden duty to provide free, compulsory education to all children till the age of 14.

It’s often argued that since the directive on education hasn’t been implemented, why should the UCC? But the state has made continuous effort to provide education, resulting in India’s literacy rate crossing 70 per cent. With respect to UCC, we have regressed. And that despite at least three categorical pronouncements by the Supreme Court directing the Union government to move towards its framing. Those ‘secularists’ who cheer the apex court’s interventions in cases related to the Gujarat riots are openly abusive of the same court’s observations on the UCC. Had the uniform civil code been introduced at the outset of our republican journey, these hypocrites would have, no doubt, been agitating for its repeal today.

Why did the makers of the Constitution stop short of framing a UCC? Probably because it appeared too complex an exercise, particularly in relation to the Hindu community. In Kerala alone there were 53 different caste-based succession practices in existence when the Hindu Code Bill was brought in Parliament. But Nehru’s resolve saw the Bill through and over time these practices gave way to a common law. This is not to suggest Hindus are more enlightened than others. Aberrations still happen. Every month horror stories surface of village panchayats delivering death sentences on runaway couples who defy strict caste codes. But these are what they are—aberrations that cannot detract from the reality that 84 per cent of Indians are now equal in the eyes of the law.

However, the law is compelled to turn a blind eye towards the medieval practices that prevail with regard to the others, especially India’s largest minority. Ironically, the Islamic republics of Pakistan and Bangladesh have overcome the resistance of their fundamentalists and modernised their marriage and succession laws. In India, it is not the conservatives but misguided, politically motivated secularists who stand in the way of implementing a sacred constitutional dictum. Indeed, India would have been a modern, democratic and truly secular republic had the Constitution makers foreseen the rise of this class of hypocritical secularists and enacted a uniform civil code in 1950.

Chandan Mitra is editor, The Pioneer, and a Rajya Sabha MP.

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