During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, B.R.Ambedkar had demonstrated his will to reform Indian society by recommending the adoption of a Civil Code of western inspiration. He had then opposed the delegates who wished to immortalize personal laws, especially Muslim representatives who showed themselves very attached to the Shariat:
"I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field. After all, what are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights."
However, Ambedkar did not obtain anything more than an article of the Directive Principles stipulating that:
"The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India."
This recommendation was to remain a dead letter, notably because the minorities – to begin, with the Muslims – took a hard line on their personal law. Many Congress members also opposed a reform of Hindu practices concerning inheritance, marriage (and divorce) and adoption, as shown by the fate of the Hindu Code Bill.
This phrase refers to a project aiming to reform traditions of the Hindu society. The British had drafted such a text in 1946 but they had had no time to get it adopted. In 1948, Nehru entrusted the drafting of the new code to a sub-committee of the Assembly and nominated Ambedkar as its head. The latter got written in it fundamental principles such as equality between men and women on the question of property and the necessity of justifying concretely a petition for divorce – a procedure which belonged too often until then to a case of a repudiation of the wife by her husband.
This questioning of the customs governing the private life of the Hindus aroused a profound emotion, not only among the traditionalists of the Hindu Mahasabha, but also among leaders of the Congress as prestigious as Rajendra Prasad, who, after being president of the Constituent Assembly had become the first President of the Indian Republic. Prasad, in a letter to Patel, who himself showed strong reservations vis-à-vis such reforms of the Hindu traditions, rose against a project whose "new concepts and new ideas are not only foreign to the Hindu law but are susceptible of dividing every family".
Jawaharlal Nehru was attached to this code in which he saw, quite as Ambedkar, one of the corner stones of the modernization of India. He even announced that his government would resign if this bill was not passed. Ambedkar pressed him to submit it as quickly as possible to Parliament. The Prime Minister asked him for a little of patience and even split the Code into four subsets for defusing the opposition before submitting it to the Assembly on September 17, 1951.
The debate which followed confirmed then the hostility of the most traditionalist Congressmen. After four days of discussions, Ambedkar gave an ardent speech where he went as far as to question the morality of Lord Ram and his wife Sita and mentioned that the extra-marital relationship of Krishna and Radha was as indication of the degraded condition in which Hinduism maintained its women. This brought the most conservative elected members to become even more critical of him. They retorted back through T. Bhargava that Ambedkar wanted this law to legalize his recent union with a Brahmin nurse. He had indeed married, in April 1948, Dr. Sharda Kabir, one of the doctors whom he had consulted, in 1947, when his work at the head of the Drafting Committee had provoked a rapid deterioration of his health.
Finally, on September 25, the portion of the Hindu Code Bill concerning marriage and divorce was deformed by amendments and finally buried without Nehru uttering the least of protest. Considering that he had not been supported enough by the Prime Minister, Ambedkar sent him his letter of resignation from his government on 27 September.
In a press release published a little later, Ambedkar attributed Nehru’s backtracking to the pressures of the Congress: "I have never seen a case of chief whip so disloyal to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister so loyal to a disloyal whip…." Actually, Nehru apprehended that the Congress MPs would reject this project en bloc and/or that the President of the Republic, Rajendra Prasad, would really carry out his threat to refuse to promulgate it as a law.
It is utterly significant that Ambedkar chose to leave the government of Nehru on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. It shows indeed that, while he believed in the political path of social reform from above, this approach did not content itself with a simple constitutional frame but implied concrete implementation questioning the logic of the social system. Now, if a large number of the Congressmen approved the constitutional framework of the Indian democracy, they were not prepared to support these tangible advances questioning the social status quo.
Extracted from Christopher Jaffrelot's forthcoming book, "Ambedkar and Untouchability - Analysing and Fighting
Caste", to be published by Permanent Black in 2004.