Nehru's Word: Laws and traditions in India suppress women, hence the Hindu Code Bill
"I think a country can be judged by the status of its women," said Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951, in Allahabad, during the run-up to the first general election, explaining the need for the Hindu Code Bill
The issue of the Uniform Civil Code has hotted up again with Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulling it out of his jhola again ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. However, the debate is possibly not meant to build a consensus but to polarise the voters.
In contrast, when the first steps in this direction were taken by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, in the form of the Hindu Code Bills from the late 1940s onwards, the effort was to build a consensus on the issue and take the Opposition on board.
As part of that process, Nehru made it part of the agenda for discussion in the run-up to the first general election in 1951–52. The extract below is from a speech he made in Allahabad on 12 December 1951 explaining the need for the proposed law:
Even now, as I stand before you after a long interval here in Allahabad, I cannot bring myself to say that I am standing for Parliament and that you should vote for me or that if you don’t I will leave you. If you want to vote for me, do so. If you do not, you need not... It is absurd when I have spent a lifetime in public service, during which it is quite clear that I have done some good work and committed some mistakes too. Now that there are a few years left to me why should I make empty promises?
It is certainly my desire to try to fulfil some of my dreams in the few years that are left to me. We took up the glowing torch of freedom years ago and tried to perform our duties with dignity. So I want to be able to say at least that my hand never flagged while holding that torch aloft and when my time is over I wish to hand it over to the younger generation who will carry it forward. That torch can never be allowed to go out...
Yes, there is one other matter that I want to talk to you about specially, and that is that I have heard that in the constituency from where I am standing in Allahabad, there are some candidates who are opposing me and one of them is Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari. I have not met him earlier and if I had, I have forgotten. But from what I have heard, he is a very good man and I have no complaint of any sort. He has issued a statement that he is opposing me only for one reason and that is the Hindu Code Bill.
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He has also said that if Jawaharlal gives an assurance that he will
give up the Hindu Code Bill, he will withdraw his candidature. Well, what he has said is very fair and I have no complaint. He has selected one point and expressed his opinion though I have heard that he observes silence and communicates only by writing. But he has the right to say what he
likes and to test public opinion on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill.
I want to say that not only is this acceptable to me, but I am happy that he has raised this issue because it brings to the fore what had been some-
what in the background so far. I want all of you to think about this problem and give your views. I want to put my views on the Hindu Code Bill very clearly before you.
There are certain principles behind the Hindu Code Bill and many details are involved. I am in complete agreement with its broad principle. The details have to be examined carefully and we are doing this. But I am certainly in agreement with its broad principles — and not only in agreement but consider them extremely necessary. It is obvious that I cannot argue with Shri Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari on matters of the Shastras.
But whatever I have read and written and from the little that I know of Indian culture and philosophy, I have understood first of all that what is known as Hindu Law is largely a matter of tradition. It is not something rigid but consists largely of traditions. In fact, if you travel all over the country, you will find them being observed in their various forms.
Even now there are completely opposite forms of Hindu law in various parts of the country. If you go to Malabar, you will find such high-class Brahmins that they consider the other Brahmins inferior. You will find laws
of inheritance and marriage which are totally opposed to what you find here. So what I mean to say is that Hindu law is largely a matter of tradition and in a sense it is a good thing in my opinion because a growing society is able to change itself through its traditions and not by binding itself with a rigid code.
When the British came, they could not understand the traditions and so they tried to write down the law with the help of some old pundits and then there were court decisions and so the Hindu society began to be bound by them...
Now if we wish to make any changes, we cannot change the traditions and so we have to change them by law. So it becomes necessary to change the law in our Assemblies and Parliament. I cannot understand it when an individual says that something in the Hindu Code is against the fundamental principles of the Hindu religion because I can point out the various forms of the Hindu Code which are practised all over India...
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Secondly, I think it is very essential to uplift the women of India because both legally and traditionally, their condition has been bad in this country. I think a country can be judged by the status of its women. It has been my effort, as you know, to ensure the participation of women in everything,
whether it is in elections or anything else. But I feel sad that our efforts have not been completely successful. We are helpless. The influence of men is still very powerful in this country. I think that the laws and traditions
in this country suppress women and do not allow them to rise.
This is wrong and should be removed and that can be done only by
changing the laws. Now, the Hindu Code Bill will be left unchanged up to the extent of 80 per cent or 90 per cent and the rest is only being put in a legal form. There are very few differences, the main ones being in the
inheritance of women, widow remarriage, etc. Bigamy will be illegal but widow remarriage permitted. In some of the provinces of India—I think Bombay and perhaps Madras—bigamy is prohibited.
Nobody protested about the prohibition in Bombay, Madras and Baroda. So we want to introduce it all over India. There was a loud protest that Hindu religion was being destroyed. I cannot understand it at all,
because in my view, instead of destroying it, this will do a special service to Hindu religion, which will progress; otherwise, the Hindu society will become weak... I consider this very important and I want you to vote on it, so that we know what you want.”