In the past few months in India, the debate around implementing a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – a Lok Sabha election promise made by the Bharatiya Janata Party – has grown stronger. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an organisation claiming to represent the right of Muslims, has vehemently opposed the move ever since, calling it an attack on Islam.
Even though the proposed law covers all communities across India, the Hindu Right’s overarching enthusiasm for UCC – articulated by BJP’s leaders – has been interpreted as a desire to disparage Muslims and fuel Hindu-Muslim binaries for electoral gains, especially since Uttar Pradesh has elections next month. In their view, Indian Muslim women have been oppressed by “secular parties” and Islamic clerics and can only be saved from the shackles of patriarchy and oppression by this intervention. Such an assumption is deeply problematic. Most prominent feminists and activists have opposed the UCC in its present form, arguing that it is nothing but the BJP’s mission to polarise the country and consolidate its Hindu vote bank.
Their fears aren’t unfounded.
In the past two and a half years as we have seen the BJP, through its army of fringe groups and affiliates, aggressively push the Hindu nationalistic agenda – changing textbooks, banning beef in BJP ruled states, compulsory reading of Hindu texts in schools, terming dissenters as anti-nationals, and more – mired in a lethal cocktail of ultra-nationalism and communalism.
Last year in October, as a first step, the Law Commission of India sought public opinion on the UCC through a questionnaire consisting of 16 questions, which led to mixed views. The AIMPLB rejected the questionnaire while the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) vowed to ensure that all Muslim women participate in it. But there are serious concerns about the way questions have been framed.
Recently, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, returned the questionnaire to the Law Commission, which had sought his opinion on the same. He wrote in a letter, “It seems that the questions have been framed in such a manner so as to force the respondent to reply in a specific way. These are leading questions with a limited number of choices given as probable answers and thus, denying the respondent enough scope to frame his own independent replies”.
While the exercise of inviting public opinions and views may be a democratic approach, a nuanced etymological analysis of these questions reveal their discriminatory nature as Kumar wrote in his letter. One cannot but miss the innate bias and hegemony in projecting Hindu culture as supreme while denigrating other religions as inferior.
Here is an example:
Q8. “Do you think that the steps should be taken to ensure that Hindu women are better able to exercise their right to property, which is often bequeathed to sons under customary practices?”
Q10. “Do you agree that there should be a uniform age of consent for marriage across all personal laws and customary practices?”
In the case of Hindu women, the question asks the public to “think” of steps to “enable” Hindu women – not necessarily enforce – whereas the other question asks the reader to directly make a judgment, with obvious usage of the word “agree” tilting towards the palpable bias against the Muslim Personal Law (without naming it), which allows a girl to be married after she’s 15 years old.
This bias holds true even for a question on Christian laws. Take look:
Q9. “Do you agree that the two-year period of wait for finalising divorce violates Christian women’s right to equality?”
Even the multiple options given under these questions reflect a bias. Question 8 on Hindu women have these options:
The options given under this question – the only one specific to Hindus – are quite detailed as compared to other questions. The third option hints that legal provisions may not help curb a cultural practice among Hindus and stresses on sensitisation, but none of the options in any other question even hint at this aspect. Most of the options under other questions are just one word or explained very briefly.
A large percentage of the questions are around Islam and minorities: triple talaq, polygamy, maintenance, personal laws, divorce laws among Christians, etc. As evident, the major problem is the questionnaire’s failure to not delve into questions plaguing Hindu women. It doesn’t question the limited agency of Hindu women to contest the dowry system nor the prevalence of bigamy – despite being illegal – among Hindus. There are no questions on female infanticide, child marriages and other discriminatory practices among Hindus.
The number of Hindu married women outnumber married men by 4.35 million, which leads to the conclusion that these women are in (illegal) bigamous or polygamous relationships with Hindu men, unless it can be proved they are mostly married to non-Hindus, for which data isn’t available. But there is no question on polygamy among Hindus, despite being outlawed.
One significant community whose issues have not been addressed in the questionnaire is tribals. In October 2016, Rashtriya Adivasi Ekta Parishad, a group that claims to work to protect Adivasi interests, moved the Supreme Court seeking protection of their customs and religious practices, including their right to practice polygamy and polyandry. The group claims to represent interests of 11 crore tribals and has stated that any direction to impose the Uniform Civil Code would adversely affect their distinct customs, culture and heritage. It highlighted that polygamy is practiced among the Naga tribes, the Gonds, the Baiga, the Lushai among others, while polyandry is prevalent in the Himalayan region stretching from Kashmir to Assam.
Even though tribals may follow either of the religions, their customs and practices are vastly different from the mainstream population and given their large numbers. Under the circumstances, one would have expected a few questions around their customs. But clearly, as feminist scholar Nivedita Menon writes, the UCC has nothing to do with gender justice, which further suggests its a device to further the Hindu nationalist agenda to ‘discipline’ Muslims.
As a concept, the idea of a code that is progressive and proposes equality for all, irrespective of religion, is a commendable one that deserves to be pushed. This is why the UCC has vociferous support, but from the public comments and social media posts that have been circulated, what seems to be underpinning their insistence upon the UCC is the idea of saving the Indian Muslim woman. They fail to fathom the crucial fact that while they might claim to seek gender justice, their idea of justice and gender equality maybe different from what Muslim or other women envision for themselves.