With the recent unfolding of several events in the political gallery it appears that the BJP government at the centre is again gearing up for implementing Uniform Civil Code (UCC) across the country. This move of the government came in the backdrop of the previous refusal of Supreme Court to entertain a petition filed by a Delhi BJP leader seeking the active role of the apex court in implementing UCC in December 2015.
This time the government led by prime minister Narendra Modi has taken a step forwards and asked the law commission to examine the possibility of implementing the common code. This is the first occasion since independence that a government has involved law commission on this overly politicised issue. In the first week of October the ministry of law and justice submitted its report in the Court specifying on polygamy and triple talaq. According to the report polygamy and triple talaq are no longer progressive and they are needed to be adjudicated upon afresh. The report also cited examples of Muslim countries where Islam is the state religion who have disregarded polygamy and triple talaq. The government also bases its position on argument that abolishment of polygamy and triple talaq is essential for the gender empowerment of Muslim women whose condition is worsening over the year.
The move of the government is commendable but also raises several questions. Firstly the hurriedness which is being shown by the BJP government in enacting UCC is provoking suspicion among Muslims that it could be the political agenda of the political party rather than a genuine concern towards addressing the basic cause of Muslim women. Secondly ,UCC is propagated by BJP as a tool for achieving gender empowerment of Muslim women but prima facie it appears just another superficial shortcut by the government while the basic and real cause of women in general and Muslim women in particular relating to health ,education ,financial and political inclusiveness lies in peril.
Muslims and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board who oppose the UCC believe that the move of the government is encroachment on their cultural rights which is guaranteed to them by the Indian constitution under Articles 25, 26 and 29. These articles guarantee the minorities the right to follow their religion, culture and customs. The Board and Muslims argues that implementation of a common civil code covering property, marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession would go against India’s secular fabric and its constitution. Lack of trust in the government and fear of losing their identity clearly reflects in the position and arguments of Muslims.
Interestingly the Indian constitution under article 44 , the directive principles of state policy, talks about universal civil code as a proposal to have a common sets of civil laws for every citizen irrespective of their religion. Since the directive principles are only guidelines on the state, it was left up to the government to implement it considering suitable condition and environment of the country. The first prime minister of the independent India Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru favoured Uniform Civil Code as necessary to maintain the secular ethos of the nation but Nehru was in no haste to implement it owing to the insecurities of Muslims towards their culture and Identity in a country where they were in minority. He was willing to wait for the suitable condition and environment when the trust will be stronger between Muslims and government. The recent growth of the UCC suggests that the trust has still not developed specially with BJP government.
The government’s approach towards UCC (as a tool of gender empowerment) can also be seen as a shortcut towards addressing much larger problem in a superficial manner. Undoubtedly the UCC is the path to the self-realisation and empowerment of Muslim women but the better approach could be from other way round. In other words empowerment of Muslim women through education, providing them with better economic opportunity, awareness programmes and abolishment of polygamy and triple talaq must go simultaneously. The government should initially focus towards the real and basic cause of Muslim Women relating to their health, education, economic independence and political participation. The Sachhar committee report reveals that the country wide literacy rates of Muslim women is merely 54 per cent and even among them most of the women can only read and write and even that only in Urdu. Only approximately 7 per cent of Muslim girls between age group of 7 to 16 years old are able to attend school. Only 25 per cent of Muslim women are economically independent and political participation of Muslim women is quite negligible. Report argues that Muslim women are among the poorest, educationally disenfranchised, economically vulnerable, politically marginalized group in India. It further argues that their poor socio-economic status reflects a lack of social opportunity which, though not a feature exclusive to Muslim women, is exacerbated by their marginal status within an overall context of social disadvantage for most Indian women.
The government in order to solidify its stand cites examples from Pakistani and Bangladeshi laws against polygamy and triple talaq, though it should also be kept on record that in terms of Gender Inequality Index (2014) India’s ranking is behind Pakistan and Bangladesh. India is on 130th position while Bangladesh and Pakistan are on 111th and 112thpisition respectively. It’s by all means true that these personal laws are hurdle for women who pull them back in the claws of religious patriarchy but it’s also quite relevant from the empirical facts that the practice of this law is very uncommon among educated and economically independent class of Muslim men and women. The educated Muslim girls are open in bashing and disowning these medieval laws and they are quite successful in their pursuance. Hence Uniform civil code is a very important step towards gender empowerment of but it should be implemented along with several other measures to achieve what it promises in words and spirit.
Faiz Ashraf, MA political science, Jamia Millia Islamia ,New Delhi