The Supreme Court has once again set the cat amongst the pigeons on the matter
of a Common Civil Code. Gloating and breast beating has commenced on all sides of the politico-social
spectrum. As an Indian Muslim I would like very much to be heard.
Let’s get some ridiculous myths out of the way first:
Myth 1: All Muslims are opposed to a Common Civil Code.
Clearly, this is not the case. I am one who is not, as are many others.
Myth 2: The Muslim Personal Law gives Muslims some great benefits that are being withheld from non-Muslims.
Nothing can be further from the truth. The personal law only gives Muslims the right to be governed by Shariah principles in the personal matters of marriage, inheritance, property rights and religious observance. Commercial and criminal law is the same for all Indians.
So why do I support a common law for all Indians in civil matters? For four very good reasons.
First, there are at least six schools of jurisprudence among Muslims, four among Sunnis and two among Shias. The Indian Muslim Personal Law is a curious amalgam of principles from different schools, but most particularly the Hanafi branch of Sunni legal belief.
While most Indian Muslims are from this sect, our so-called Muslim Personal Law does not cover large numbers of Muslims, who prefer their own interpretation of Shariah law. Therefore, this is hardly in conformity with pure Koranic practice, as the more extreme elements among the Muslim clergy would have us believe.
Second, I believe the most important demand that Muslims should make in secular India is that we are treated equally. That we have equal rights and opportunities as all other Indians and that the State will afford us the same protection of our rights and property as it would Hindus. I do not believe Muslims can make that demand when at the same time we want to be treated differently in matters of personal law. This is an irreconcilable inconsistency.
Third, at least half of all Muslims are badly served by the Muslim Personal Law. Triple talaq, no rights to maintenance (thank you, Rajiv Gandhi!) and subordinate rights of inheritance are all examples of how my Muslim sisters labour under an unfair and, dare I say it, unIslamic set of regulations. I have a daughter and if she should want to marry a Muslim it will be under the Special Marriages Act, thank you very much.
And lastly, this ridiculous Muslim Personal Law is a convenient stick for Hindu communalists to beat Muslims with. Giving us the right to be governed by our own personal law gives them the right to claim that we are some kind of privileged minority with a suspect commitment to the Indian Republic. Take away the law and deprive Pravin Togadia of the stick.
However, I would also like to raise two very specific and critical qualifications to my support of the Supreme Court mention. We cannot move towards a Common Civil Code without absolute clarity on these matters:
One, understand and do something about the fundamental reasons why Indian Muslims cling to their own Personal Law. Deep within the psyche of the Mussalman is a fear of disenfranchisement, of complete loss of identity and marginalisation within Indian society.
Two, every time you burn homes in Gujarat, every time you treat Urdu as an alien tongue, every time a Muslim boy loses a job opportunity thanks to discrimination and every time Mr Togadia hints darkly at ‘the enemy within,’ you compound the siege mentality.
When everything is taken away, goes the ghetto belief, let us cling tightly to what we are. The Muslim Personal Law, sadly, has become one of the symbols of identity, an identity under threat.
A Common Civil Code must imply that ALL citizens are covered under the same laws on civil and commercial matters.
Let us dismantle at the same time, special privileges under the Hindu Undivided Family provisions as also any special laws governing the personal affairs of Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs as well as other groups like the Nairs of Kerala who follow the principles of matrilineal descent.
Do away not only with Muslim Personal Law but also other laws on the statute books that grant legal sanctity to unique practices of the diverse communities of India.
As an Indian Muslim I wholeheartedly support the idea of a Common Civil Code. It is a fair and equitable Directive Principle of the Constitution of India. Let us, however, understand this matter in its entirety, away from the hysterical jubilation and frantic wailing of communalists on both sides.
One people. One law.
Yes, for sure!
Tariq Ansari is Managing Director, Mid Day Multimedia, Mumbai.