A vigorous national debate has unfolded over the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and is led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The most disturbing dimension of this debate has been the way it is perceived through the lens of it being a Hindu-Muslim issue.
For years, the Hindu Right’s propaganda machine has packaged it as part of the appeasement politics of Indian Muslims. Any endeavour to understand this debate would, however, imply that there is more to it than the Hindu-Muslim issue. Moreover, it is not the Muslims who would find themselves at the receiving end if the UCC could be formulated objectively or without any majoritarian biases.
Interestingly, the BJP has presented the UCC as a major campaign issue in the recent Assembly elections both, in Karnataka and, Himachal Pradesh. Though the party has lost elections in these two states, it is determined to pursue the UCC campaign.
In the recent years, the BJP’s chief ministers from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and the other BJP ruled states have been more pro-active in this campaign compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah. The BJP seems to have unleashed some kind of bottom-up strategy to create a favorable countrywide eco-system for the UCC. Otherwise, how one would understand the BJP’s decision to present the UCC as a massive issue in Himachal Pradesh, where Muslim politics is rather inconsequential. Pushkar Singh Dhami, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, set up a five-member committee in May 2022 to prepare a draft. It is chaired by Ranjana Prakash Desai, a retired Supreme Court Judge.
It is no secret that the UCC has been one of the three key ideological agendas of the Hindu Right, together with the abrogation of the Article 370; and the building of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Now that the Article 370 is removed and the Ram Temple is going to be inaugurated in January 2024, the UCC remains the only key agenda unaddressed out of the BJP’s original three.
Without a doubt, the UCC has a resonance beyond the conventional social base of the BJP. The idea of equality of law for all citizens regardless of their faith is a powerful idea against which no reasonable argument could be made. Given the way national conversation has taken place on this issue since the days of India’s Constituent Assembly debates, it seems as if everyone wants this equality except Indian Muslims.
According to the Hindu Right, the failure of India to not have the UCC implemented so far is because secular political parties have been less inclined to have equality of law and are more committed to pampering Muslims.
Is this the case?
One way to answer this question is to go back to the no- confidence motion debate that took place in the Indian Parliament in 1996. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as Prime Minister of the 13-day government, argued that it was his party’s stand over a few controversial issues like the UCC was the reason why secular parties were not willing to extend their support to his government.
Since the BJP did not have the majority, he further said, he was willing to set these issues aside but urged for a national debate on the UCC. Vajpayee elaborated further by saying that he indeed appreciates a few things in Muslim marriage rituals such as the practice of the bride’s consent during the nikah ceremony.
Indeed, there are good things in various religions. One wonders if the UCC will be a synthesis of such good practices or purely a replication of Hindu practices. To take the cue from Vajpayee’s 1996 speech, the Islamic practice of bride’s consent could be a part of the UCC because it is a good practice. If that is the case, will it be acceptable to Hindu society?
Taking part in the same debate, former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao cited a particular practice in Hindu society in Andhra Pradesh in which it is permissible for a maternal uncle to marry his niece. He inquired if the lawmakers could say how it could be handled in the UCC. One option is to stop the practice or allow it in other parts of India. According to him, both could prove to be very challenging.
This is just one example and there must be many instances in heterogeneous Hindu society that need streamlining for the perfect UCC. The truth is caste structures of Hindu society are anchored on hierarchy and the UCC is all about equality. For complete uniformity, the hierarchy has to go. This is the aspect of the debate that remains untouched in the Indian context.
Given the complex diversity in Hindu society, any comprehensive attempt to bring in the UCC could cause greater convulsion in it than in the Muslim society. One wonders if the BJP or the Hindu Right is ready for it. But the debate is so much overshadowed by the Muslim resistance that the other dimension is entirely overlooked.
Given that Muslim groups—particularly the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB)—has been so fiercely opposed to the UCC that it has encouraged the Hindu Right to believe that this is an opportunity to discipline Muslims. Furthermore, the Hindu Code Bill is presented in a manner that it would permanently resolve the all the gender issues in the Hindu society.
According to Flavia Agnes, a noted feminist lawyer, there are many issues in the Hindu Code Bill, which undermine gender freedom. According to her, the Hindu Code Bill has led to the Hinduisation of the Special Marriage Act, 1954 and there are other loopholes.
It is also a fact that the origins of AIMPLB lay in the idea of its resistance to the UCC. It was set up in 1973 at the initiative of Muhammad Taiyab, the then Muhtamim of the Deoband Madrasa. When H R Gokhale, India’s Home Minister, tabled the Adoption Bill in Parliament, not consistent with Muslim religious laws on guardianship, it raised fear among Muslim clergies.
Some Muslims like Taiyab viewed it as a precursor to the UCC. They felt the need for an organisation for which a meeting was organised in Deoband followed by a larger one in Mumbai on December 27-28, 1972. It gave birth to the AIMPLB in Hyderabad four months later. No doubt, the fear of the UCC and the need to preserve the Muslim Personal Law (MPL) were the reasons behind the formation of the AIMLAB.
Since the days of the Shah Bano case in the late 1980s, efforts have been made by civil society organisations to challenge the Islamic patriarchy that the AIMPLB stands for. These efforts have some impact and are manifested in the decision by the AIMPLB to have women members on its board. Furthermore, in 2005, the All India Muslim Women Personal Board (AIMWPB) was also set up. For many civil society groups, particularly the ones like the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), the big concern has been the lack of the codification of family law. Such a law has been codified in many Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa following the family law of the Ottoman Empire, 1917. Personal status codes were developed in Jordan (1951), Syria (1953), Tunisia (1957), Morocco (1958), Iraq (1959) and other countries.
Pakistan’s 1961 Family Laws Ordinance was shaped by these laws in Arab countries, and was retained by Bangladesh. Secular regimes of India seem to have failed to draw inspiration from these changes, which has given a huge opportunity for the Hindu Right to pursue the UCC as the champion of equality of law but the Hindu Right’s UCC will be having a majoritarian spin.
Will the Modi government bring in the UCC prior to the 2024 election or defer it to the post-2024 government? There are advantages in both instances for the BJP. If it succeeds in the passage of the UCC Bill prior to the 2024 election, it will motivate its core social base because the three key ideological agendas that the party stood for are now fulfilled.
Alternatively, the party would simply continue to provoke national debate—and enter the election with a loud message that it needs the mandate for passage of the UCC so that the country could come under one law.
In any case, the UCC has been a part of the BJP’s manifestos in the past many elections. The Modi government, I would like to argue, might defer the passage of the UCC to post-2024, and deploy it as a major campaign issue during the 2024 Parliamentary election campaign as part of its polarisation strategy. With added credibility having built the breathtaking Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the BJP could embark on the 2024 election with a massive advantage against the relatively better united Opposition Parties compared to 2019 and 2014.
(Views expressed are personal)
Dr Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia millia Central University, New Delhi