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Uniform Civil Code: Why Do India's Liberals Oppose A Liberal Idea?

They are just fanning the Hindu right's sense of victimhood.

20/10/2016 8:01 PM IST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:04 PM IST
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Danish Ishmail / Reuters
Kashmir Muslim women offer prayers during Eid al-Fitr in Srinagar September 11, 2010.

This is the first in a three-part series on the debate on Uniform Civil Code, its complex history in India and the shifty politics surrounding it.

At the first light of India's freedom, the Constituent Assembly was debating a common civil code, a debate that has not stopped since. The New York-returned Bhim Rao Ambedkar was arguing for the common civil code to be enshrined in the new constitution, and an end to religious decrees governing marriage, divorce and property rights.

"After all, what are we having this liberty for?" asked Ambedkar poignantly during one of his speeches, even as he faced vicious personal attacks from both Hindu and Muslim conservatives. The patriarchs were loathe to give up their male privilege to control and punish their women.

"We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system," Ambedkar answered his own question, "which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights."

Ambedkar did not get the common civil code, but only a line in the Directive Principles that promised the state will "endeavour to secure for citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India".

Ambedkar did not get the common civil code, but only a line in the Directive Principles that promised the state will "endeavour to secure for citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India".

Nearly 70-years since that speech, the inequities remain, the discriminations prevail and fundamental rights are violated, all supported by the Indian state. And worse still, the status quo is being championed by India's left-liberal commentators, the ones who trace their "progressive" intellectual ancestry to the Ambedkar-Nehru duo.

For example, Amnesty International's India chief Aakaar Patel sees the move to ban triple talaq, or even a debate on the Uniform Civil Code, only as a sign of assertive Hindutva under Modi. Writers in the Economic and Political Weekly and liberal JNU professors agree with Patel: this is not about gender justice, this is an attempt to "discipline Muslims".

The one exception has been Ramachandra Guha, who wrote it's "puzzling" to see left-liberals become "apologists for the status quo, whose tortured and convoluted arguments only serve the interests of Muslim patriarchs and the Islamic clergy."

Their self-defeating stand against the UCC plays right into a Hindu-right pet peeve: that Nehruvians and Leftists embrace the most regressive elements of Islam, while denigrating Hindu beliefs and practices.

Actually, they serve the interests of the Hindu right even more. Their self-defeating stand against the UCC plays right into a Hindu-right pet peeve: that Nehruvians and Leftists embrace the most regressive elements of Islam, while denigrating Hindu beliefs and practices.

The double-standards on UCC severely damages the credibility of India's liberal movement as a whole, while fanning the Hindu right's sense of victimhood. Their persecution complex has endured since Ambedkar and Nehru pushed through progressive marriage, divorce and property laws for Hindus, but they were unable (or unwilling) to touch Muslim personal law.

The "government did not dare to touch the Muslim community" declared Hindu Mahasabha founder Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, founder of the Hindu Mahasabha, and one of the biggest opponents of the Hindu reform acts. Ironically, today the followers of Mookherjee want to discuss the common civil code he once opposed, while the followers of Ambedkar-Nehru have let the Hindu right hijack a movement that should have been theirs.

The "government did not dare to touch the Muslim community" declared Hindu Mahasabha founder Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, founder of the Hindu Mahasabha.

If India's liberals can move beyond their reflex opposition, they would see the UCC as a great opportunity to take India decisively away from religious nationalism of the Sangh Parivar and towards a modern civic nationalism. That is how Ambedkar-Nehru saw it when they argued passionately for the common civil code, without which the syncretic "Idea of India" remains incomplete.

While most countries in the world are built on some form of religious or ethnic nationalism, only a handful of countries – like the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia – have embraced civic nationalism. All these are former settler colonies, with major ethnic diversities that necessitated uniform civil laws for social cohesion.

Pursuing a civic nationalism and a common civil code would bestow sacredness on Indian democracy, in a way worship and holy texts give sacred legitimacy to religions.

India is unique in embracing civic nationalism, despite not being a nation of immigrants. The credit for this goes primarily to Nehru and Ambedkar, who perhaps realized that pursuing ethnic or religious nationalism in a country as diverse as India was a recipe for implosion.

Pursuing a civic nationalism and a common civil code would bestow sacredness on Indian democracy, in a way worship and holy texts give sacred legitimacy to religions. And forming a new civic religion, with a common civil code, was the best way to defang the religious right in the long term.

But Ambedkar-Nehru, and their liberal political heirs, were unable to push through the common civil code. And the Hindu right has benefited a great deal from the liberal diffidence (or opportunism) over the UCC. The Shah Bano fiasco of the 1980's, with the Rajiv Gandhi government's support for retrograde Islamic laws, gave the Sangh Parivar a popular rallying call, the first trigger before the Ram Mandir movement took over.

Gandhi's handling of the Shah Bano case was one of the worst moments for the liberal project in India. Thirty-years later, there is a sense of déjà vu. With a Shayara Bano this time in the spotlight, India's liberal commentators are ceding moral space to the Hindu right with their knee-jerk opposition to any talk of Islamic reforms or the UCC.

To rephrase Ambedkar's question, "What are we having these liberals for?"

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