Unravelling the Uniform Civil Code

Date:

Uniform Civil Code, as envisaged by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, is bound to affect adversely the Muslim community. As such, it would be prudent for its leaders to, at least once, adopt a careful, logical, farsighted, and well-thought-out strategy to counter the move.

Asad Mirza

ON 9th December 2022, Kirodi Lal Meena, a Bharatiya Janata Party  (BJP) member of the Rajya Sabha, introduced a private member’s bill on Uniform Civil Code (UCC) fuelling a fresh debate on an issue which saw no resolution even in pre-independence India and which continues to vitiate the country’s political climate even today. 

The sensitive nature of the issue, besides giving political mileage to the BJP, affects various other parties. It also puts religious communities falling under the purview of the UCC to give up their respective personal laws, particularly the Muslims, the largest religious minority in the country.

Let us dissect the political motives first and then the response of the affected communities.

First, tabling the bill in the Rajya Sabha came just a day after the BJP secured victory in the Gujarat assembly polls last December. It reinforced the BJP’s political manifesto of enforcing Hindutva, which may also serve as the lynchpin of its political strategy of polarising the public ahead of the general elections in 2024.

Further, the second move to seek public opinion on the proposed UCC, in the absence of any draft of the proposed bill, is a very astute move by the BJP. It came within a week of the opposition parties meeting in Patna in June to formulate a united front and strategy to counter the BJP in the 2024 elections. As expected, the move sowed division within the opposition ranks. It also saw an immediate half-baked response from the so-called leaders of the religious minorities – particularly the Muslims.

Without batting an eyelid,  Muslim religious and community leaders immediately started opposing the UCC. They didn’t delve at length into the grounds of their opposition and we saw a plethora of sentimentally rich and logically poor responses coming forth from them. The only common stand they took was outrightly rejecting any interference in their personal law.

But I am sure, neither the leaders nor their supporters know which personal law they are talking about; the one codified by any Muslim rulers like the Mughals, the Khiljis or the Tughlaqs, or the ones before them? The answer is NO. In fact, the British colonialists codified the prevailing Muslim Personal Law without consulting any Islamic jurist or scholar. 

Before 1937, Muslims of all denominations, all over India, followed the uncodified local Hindu customs, practices and usages in addition to their personal law as per the Shariah. The British just concurred on codifying the prevalent practices relevant to marriage, divorce, etc., but changed the ones relating to succession and division of property in the case of Muslims.

It would be interesting to know at whose behest the colonial rulers codified the Muslim Law of Succession and Inheritance. It was none other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League.

The Shariat Act of 1937 was imposed on Indian Muslims as a win-win political deal between the British, keen to divide Hindus and Muslims, and the Muslim League, keen to lure the Muslims away from the Congress. This not only suited Jinnah’s political strategy to secure a separate country for the Muslims, but it had an added personal angle also.

Jinnah’s daughter Dina married Nevile Wadia – a Parsi, against his wishes, though he himself was married to a Parsi, Rattanbai Petit. To disown Dina and to leave no inheritance for her, Jinnah made use of the recently introduced Shariat Act 1937 and nominated his sister Fatima as his successor. The Act, a joint strategy of the British and the League, contained provisions to sabotage the Islamic Shariah, by secretly smuggling the Hindu customs and usages into the 1937 Act to save the property rights of Muslim leaders, Jinnah and the zamindars (landlords) from harm by the Islamic Shariah. Did the Shariat Act of 1937 – now acclaimed as the holy law of Islam – contain Hindu law provisions to secure the property rights of the League leaders? Yes, it does.

Historian K.K. Abdul Rahiman in The History of the Evolution of Muslim Personal Law in (1986) says the British gave strength to customs and usage that had long been adhered to particularly in matters of succession by some sections of Indian Muslims.

Further, we have to realise that the UCC would not only affect Muslims but also Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Jews, Parsis and other minorities and scheduled tribes in the country. And at the moment it is just a political gimmick of the government to polarise the electorate and also sow seeds of discord amongst the unified opposition. Muslim leaders need to bring leaders of other communities at the same platform and also inform their Hindu brethren that the UCC will abolish the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) provisions for filing Income Tax, thus it would increase the tax liability of Hindus also.

The UCC Bill has been introduced as a political reform by the BJP, guided by principles of Hindutva, as a response to replace the existing complicated set of personal laws. These laws are so complicated that even the Britishers didn’t dare to interfere with them. Further, the Constituent Assembly, besieged by two schools of thought, one supporting the UCC,  argued that it provided for the emergence of a secular and progressive nation while the opponents felt it to be in conflict with the ideas of inclusiveness and pluralism, deemed it fit to circumvent the issue and leave it unresolved. It chose to include the UCC under the Directive Principles, under Article 44 of the Constitution, and leaving it for future generations to sort it out.

A realistic and practical understanding of how personal laws operate will indicate that the state’s organs and the Indian society are yet not ready, even after 73 years for the substantial revamp that such legislation would bring. Instead of gunning for political gains, we should try to reflect the rich Indian diversity of traditions and their importance in the daily life of common Indians.

Lastly, the manner in which the Muslim leadership has responded to the government’s move shows its complete immaturity and the set manner of its traditional, out-of-touch-with-reality response, completely bereft of any political nuances and strategy. The same approach was evident too during the Babri Masjid movement, Triple Talaq issue etc. 

Still there is time for Muslim leaders to formulate a unified strategy on the crucial UCC issue. They should do so in consultation with leaders of other religious minorities and political parties so that this time they don’t get defeated by the government in its avowed anti-Muslim campaign. But, chances of any such endeavour seem very remote.

__________

Asad Mirza is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. He writes on Indian Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs. The views expressed here are author’s personal. He can be contacted on www.asadmirza.in

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