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Can Narendra Modi Be Trusted With The Uniform Civil Code?

Can he finish Nehru's unfinished business?

25/10/2016 1:41 PM IST | Updated 25/10/2016 2:00 PM IST
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Indian Muslims greetNarendra Modi (R) at the Gujarat University Convention Centre in Ahmedabad on September 17, 2011.

This is the concluding article of a three-part series on the debate on Uniform Civil Code, its complex history in India and the shifty politics surrounding it. You can read the first article here and the second here.

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) was a key pillar of the Nehruvian secular project that remains unfinished. Prime Minister Nehru admitted his inability to see it through, as he faced resistance from the Muslim clergy to any changes in personal laws.

"I should like a Civil Code which applies to everybody but wisdom hinders," Nehru told Parliament. He was accused of double-standards by the Sangh Parivar for not codifying Muslim personal laws at the same time. "I confess I do not think that at the present moment time is 'ripe' in India for me to try to push it through," Nehru demurred.

Could Narendra Modi – the anti-Nehru in popular imagination – complete Nehru's unfinished business? In the twisted politics over the Uniform Civil Code, that may just be par for the course.

Nehru's grandson Rajiv Gandhi had a great shot at history, but he threw it away in the mid-1980's. When the Supreme Court gave the landmark, progressive judgement in the Shah Bano case, Gandhi had over 400 Members of Parliament, public opinion and a judicial ruling on his side. To use his grandfather's words, the time was "ripe" for the government to overrule the Muslim clergy and make a decisive push towards a Uniform Civil Code. It would have also neutralized the Sangh Parivar by robbing them of a wedge issue.

Nehru's grandson Rajiv Gandhi had a great shot at history, but he threw it away in the mid-1980's.

Instead, Rajiv Gandhi upturned the Supreme Court judgement with the ironically named Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 – it did exactly the opposite of protecting Muslim women. This emboldened the Sangh Parivar, who mobilized public opinion against the "pseudo-secular" government: the Bharatiya Janata Party went from only two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, to 85 seats in 1989.

If you believe one of his closest aides, the man who pushed Rajiv Gandhi into this hair-brained idea is now a minister in Modi's government. According to Wajahat Habibullah, director in the former prime minister's office, that man is MJ Akbar.

"Mr Akbar had convinced Rajiv that if the government were not to contest the Shah Bano judgment," Habibullah wrote recently in The Hindu, "it would appear to the Muslim community that the Prime Minister did not regard them as his own."

Thirty years later, MJ Akbar might be on hand to advise another prime minister on the Uniform Civil Code.

Thirty years later, MJ Akbar might be on hand to advise another prime minister on the Uniform Civil Code.

In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP promised to "draft a uniform civil code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonizing them with the modern times." Modi can claim that he has the democratic legitimacy to pursue it. The Muslim clergy's reluctance to reply to the questionnaire from the Law Commission plays into Modi's hands, as he tries to build a majoritarian public opinion for the UCC and to polarize voters in Uttar Pradesh.

But if he does follow through on the UCC in earnest, Modi may find that the Muslim clergy is the least of his worries. The legislative process will be complicated: personal laws fall in the concurrent list, on which both the center and state can legislate. Modi would have to negotiate with different state governments to give Parliament exclusive powers to bring in a nationwide civil code.

But if he does follow through on the UCC in earnest, Modi may find that the Muslim clergy is the least of his worries.

Negotiating with the different states – many of whom have their own idiosyncratic personal laws – will be time-consuming and demand compromises from Modi. Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram and Nagaland enjoy special status under the Indian constitution with a certain degree of autonomy over their personal laws: delicate negotiations with these border states will be required.

To create the requisite social and political coalition, Modi will have to do some give-and-take. For example, scholars like Tahir Mahmood have pointed out that "a tacit bargain has been struck in modern India whose terms are that Muslims will not be permitted to violate Hindu feelings by slaughtering cows, while the Muslims have a right to have a separate system of civil laws."

To create the requisite social and political coalition, Modi will have to do some give-and-take.

How will Modi overturn this "tacit bargain"? How much leeway will the Sangh Parivar allow him? And if the UCC is actually passed, will it rob the BJP of a polarizing issue that gives them votes? Most likely, Modi will find that using the UCC bogey during elections, and then putting it in the backburner, is his most convenient strategy.

There may be one big reward though, that may drive Modi towards pushing for the UCC in earnest: his own legacy. If he has to go down as one of India's great prime ministers, he will have to pull off a feat in office that can paper over his divisive past, the stubborn blot of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and the constant reminders from the intelligentsia who will judge his place in history.

There may be one big reward though, that may drive Modi towards pushing for the UCC in earnest: his own legacy.

What better way to stick it to the Nehruvians than to complete the unfinished secular business of Nehru, and prove that the Congress was "pseudo-secular" all along? Even liberal historians will have to admit Modi's efficacy if he manages to pass an acceptable Uniform Civil Code, which the combined might of Ambedkar and Nehru could not. The historical import of this bill would not have been lost on Modi.

Will the anti-Nehru want to go one-up on Nehru's legacy?

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