What is called as Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is as such dealing with the personal laws (marriage, divorce, maintenance, custody and inheritance). Our criminal and civil laws are same for all the religious communities but our personal laws have been related and linked to religion. So there are separate laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Ironically Jain, Buddhists and Sikhs are included in Hindus. As such the prevalent laws and norms among diverse Hindu communities are not same for all Hindus as there is large number of variations among them. During the Constituent Assembly debates what finally emerged was that the personal laws should continue as such. In the directive principles of state policy article 44 it was stated that state shall try to evolve uniform common laws for all the citizens of India, irrespective of their religion. The aim was to bring these laws in consonance with concept of justice.
At the same time Nehru called upon B.R. Ambedkar, the law minister, to work for Hindu Code Bill whereby the diverse Hindu communities can be brought under the same umbrella. The idea was that since the Hindus are the largest religious community, if reform process can be initiated among them, the same process can be extended to other communities. Ambedkar formulated the Bill with the understanding that the prevalent laws don’t give equal justice to women. The draft Bill as it emerged was opposed by large section of Hindu community as it was too radical for the prevalent patriarchal norms. Later the Bill was diluted and implemented. The failure to carry through the bill was a setback to the efforts of Ambedkar; he felt dejected and left the Cabinet.
The debate further came to the fore in the wake of Shah Bano Judgment. Here, Shah Bano’s plea for the maintenance after divorce was upheld by the Court. The conservative section of Muslim society stood up to oppose this judgment. Buckling to the pressure Rajiv Gandhi Government passed a Muslim Women (Protection of rights on Divorce) Bill, which bypassed the judgment. With this the Hindu communal forces took up the issue and called for UCC. The main point which was propagated was that Muslims are allowed to marry four times. The unstated understanding behind this was that due to polygamy the population of Muslims will overtake that of Hindus. In real sense neither is the percentage of polygamy more among Muslims nor does polygamy lead to more children as number of children is restricted by the number of women.
The section of Muslims, Muslim leadership and organizations like Muslim Personal law board made it as the issue of minority identity and strongly stood against any demand for UCC. The practices like polygamy, Burqa, triple talaq became the marker of Muslim community. From within the Muslim community many women’s groups came up which started campaigning for the gender justice and abolition of these practices. As such the focus of reforms came totally on the Muslim community and the need for reforms within Hindus took a back seat in popular imagination. While the Communal forces talked of uniformity in law they neither have any scheme of things nor any document in hand around which they can put this demand. The dominant notion is that UCC will be an exercise of picking up some laws from Hindus, some from Muslims and some from Christians to make the picture complete. The central notion of gender justice is missing in this discourse.
At the same time progressive Women’s movement had also demanded the UCC, but having realized that most of the personal laws which are prevalent in the name of religion are unjust to the women, they retracted and started talking about Gender just code through the process of reforms in the community. So how will UCC come in? Will gender justice be the basis of uniformity? There is a notion that somebody will prepare the laws and these will be brought in, imposed on all the communities. This is ‘top down’ approach. Second is the ‘bottom up’ approach. Here the focus is on reform process being encouraged in the society and the process being taken further given the shape of law. The crucial point here is the process of reform within the community, a process based on gender justice.
Among other, the efforts of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in this direction are noteworthy. BMMA has collected 50,000 signatures for abolition of triple talaq. The idea here is to campaign and do the advocacy for such changes, get the laws made on these lines which will strengthen the hands of Judiciary in giving justice to Women in particular. It is campaigns like this which raise the consciousness in the society and the possibility of the occurrence of such things in society go down. In other words such campaigns make the ground on which justice delivery becomes better and easier. The campaign for banning triple talaq is an important step in the direction of reforms based on gender justice.
It is true that communal forces which make loud noise on the topic have no interest in gender justice. Their central agenda is to frighten the Muslim community. Here the crocodile tears of those posing to give justice to Muslim women are more than obvious. Gripped in the patriarchal mind set men dominated Muslim organizations also don’t support such campaigns.
As such one should grant the point that an intimidated community gives secondary importance to issues of gender justice. Their primary concern is security and partly equity in social affairs. Men are the one’s leading the organizations promoting communal politics. Also self proclaimed Law Boards are gripped by patriarchal mind sets, surely it is the women who are struggling for gender parity and one stands with such equality based ‘bottom up’ approach of social change. The opposition to UCC comes mainly due to fear of intimidating communal politics and the values of patriarchy which needs to be overcome.
There is also an argument that the campaigns like abolition of triple talaq will open the door for Hindutva forces to bring in Hindu laws as UCC. That’s a tricky argument and does draw our attention to the dangers in demand for reforming the laws. Still one hopes that in current scenario to bring back the Hindu laws as UCC are unlikely as most of the Women’s groups have realized that the existing Hindu laws are nowhere close to giving justice to Hindu women, so it is unlikely that such an imposition can place in today’s context. It is time that reforms in the community and gender justice become the base of our thinking in this direction.
Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. He is involved with human rights activities from last two decades.He is associated with various secular and democratic initiatives like All India Secular Forum, Center for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD. Response only to firstname.lastname@example.org