This is the second in a three-part series on the debate on Uniform Civil Code, its complex history in India and the shifty politics surrounding it.
On 20 September 1951, as Parliament vigorously debated his proposed Hindu Code Bill, Law Minister Bhim Rao Ambedkar gave a speech that was equal parts blasphemous and feminist. He questioned Ram's mistreatment of Sita in the Ramayana, and tore into the practice of sacramental marriage, as opposed to marriage as a contract.
"Sacramental ideal of marriage described in as few words as possible, is polygamy for the man and perpetual slavery for the woman," said Ambedkar, drawing howls of protest from many members of the House, the Sangh Parivar and traditionalists within the Congress government.
India was not ready for Ambedkar's radical rationalism. His speech alienated public opinion and turned most of the Congress against the proposed reforms in the Hindu Code Bill. The Sangh Parivar hit the streets with protests against Ambedkar, the "untouchable" who had dared to question the scriptures. Some even accused Ambedkar of rooting for this law to legitimize his own inter-caste marriage to Dr Sharda Kabir, a Brahmin.
The Sangh Parivar hit the streets with protests against Ambedkar, the "untouchable" who had dared to question the scriptures.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was left with no space to maneuver and gave the bill a quiet burial within days. Disillusioned with Nehru and the Congress, Ambedkar tendered his resignation. And that is how India lost its first and most iconic Law Minister.
Nehru made the Hindu code a prominent part of his 1951 election manifesto to gain democratic legitimacy. The Congress won handsomely. By the mid-1950's Nehru was able to push through three separate reformist bills – the Hindu Marriage Bill, the Hindu Succession Bill, and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Bill.
Though watered down versions of Ambedkar's original Hindu Code Bill, the new bills made progressive reforms by banning polygamy, recognizing inter-caste marriages and divorce procedures, and by giving daughters equal rights in the inheritance of family property.
Though watered down versions of Ambedkar's original Hindu Code Bill, the new bills made progressive reforms.
With the scars of Partition still around, Nehru did not have the stomach to confront the Muslim clergy to adopt the Uniform Civil Code or to reform from within. Affronted by this, the Sangh Parivar now became born-again fans of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), an idea they earlier found blasphemous.
Their support was not for the secular, progressive state the UCC envisioned: they just wanted to get even with the Muslims who could still keep their harems and divorce at will too. The Congress – the original sponsors of the UCC – started opposing the idea to keep the imams happy, so they batted for the Congress at election time.
This is how the Congress and Sangh Parivar switched sides on the UCC, both for cynical reasons. The Congress paid for its short-sightedness with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the back of the Shah Bano case.
The Congress paid for its short-sightedness with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the back of the Shah Bano case.
The BJP is keen to bring up the issue now as they believe it can pay electoral dividends, particularly in Uttar Pradesh next year. Their support is not for the original ideals of the UCC – far from it.
For progressive supporters of the UCC, the puzzle is that the wrong party is talking about the right bill for the wrong reasons. But let's get real: since the Ambedkar-Nehru days, no major political party has supported or opposed the UCC for the right reasons.
Rather than being defensive about the Sangh Parivar raising the UCC bogey, there is a strong case for calling their bluff and demanding a comprehensive 21st century civil code that takes out triple talaq, but also deals with contemporary violations of individual rights like the beef ban and criminalization of homosexuality. Religion should not enter marriage and divorce: it also has no business on our dining tables or bedrooms.
An actual debate on the UCC is likely to put the Sangh Parivar on the backfoot, because their love for religious reforms is as hollow as Donald Trump's respect for women.
An actual debate on the UCC is likely to put the Sangh Parivar on the backfoot, because their love for religious reforms is as hollow as Donald Trump's respect for women. But, in a country where 80% are Hindus, it is inconceivable that any Uniform Civil Code can ever be passed without engaging Hindu conservatives. So shunning them is a dead end, if you want progressive social reforms in India. Persuading them is the only strategy.
And in democratic politics, miracles do happen, even if they take many decades in persuasion. In the US, the Democratic party was once the socially conservative party of slave-owning Southern whites, but after many decades of evolution it championed the 1960's Civil Rights Movement and has been the progressive party in America since then. The Republican Party went the other way: the party of Abraham Lincoln has a racist, xenophobe at the top of its ticket in 2016.
Now, no one expects the Sangh Parivar to turn into a rave of beef-eating gay-lovers. But then, if you had told Ambedkar and Nehru that the Sangh would one day be the biggest supporters of the Uniform Civil Code, they may have politely asked you to go fly a kite.
You can read the first article in this series here.