After Ayodhya, the UCC dog whistle again

What women feel about the opaque law being test-fired in Uttarakhand weeks before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls

Muslim women assemble to oppose the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in Ahmedabad, November 2016 (photo: Getty Images)
Muslim women assemble to oppose the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in Ahmedabad, November 2016 (photo: Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

With only a few weeks for the Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to go to the polls flaunting the fulfilment of three of his electoral promises—the abrogation of Article 370, the construction of the Ram temple and the enforcement of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

Since the enactment of a common set of personal laws on marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance is a complex and divisive issue, Modi has gone about it in characteristically opaque fashion. The first state to implement it will be Uttarakhand, at a special assembly session convened on 5 February to pass the bill.

The complete draft was submitted to the state government only on 2 February, by former Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai and the five-member committee whose recommendations had been approved on 22 December 2023 by the state cabinet, headed by chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami.

The state’s Law Commission had no time to study it properly. The draft was not circulated amongst the 70 MLAs of the Vidhan Sabha nor shared in the public domain. The only public declaration was that once the bill was passed in Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Assam would follow suit.

“I have not seen the draft but I am convinced it will target the Muslim community. If the government was sincere about a common UCC, why did they not include Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Jews and Buddhists in the five-member committee that framed the bill?” asks Khadeeja, a practising criminal lawyer at the Delhi High Court and erstwhile member of the Centre for UN Peacekeeping.

“As an educated Garhwali Muslim woman, I have not found any of the Muslim personal laws to be discriminatory. My mother, who had no formal education, chose to divide the [family] property fairly between my brothers and myself. I have never faced any discrimination at work or within the family circle,” Khadeeja adds.

“If they really want to bring about uniformity, then women should have the option of choosing between a religious ceremony or a civil marriage. Dichotomies within Hindu law should be addressed, as should differences in property laws across states.”

When asked her views on polygamy, Khadeeja affirms this is a non-issue for Muslims and is simply part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s majoritarian agenda to run down the minority community. She quotes from the Census of India 1961: over 1 lakh marriages were surveyed and polygamy amongst Muslims was found to be at 5.7 per cent, the lowest across communities.

Author and journalist Pamela Philipose, who belongs to the Christian community, believes introducing the UCC in Uttarakhand is a continuation of the state government’s mission to ethnically cleanse the hill state of its Muslim population.

This began two years ago with the bogey of ‘love jihad’, whereby Muslims who had been residents for several generations were forced to leave their homes and businesses and relocate. While the BJP does attack the Christian community, their diatribes are largely directed against Muslim men, whom they seek to ‘criminalise’ by banning, for instance, triple talaq. “The BJP wants to finish off their personal laws, attack and destroy their social fabric and reduce them to pariah status,” she added.

Sonal Kellogg, a Christian activist who was born in Pauri Garhwal in Uttarakhand and presently works in Ahmedabad, is emphatic: “Space for us minorities is shrinking. We know that things are just going to get tougher.” Commenting on the mounting attacks on churches, Kellogg says, “More often than not, it is the pastor who gets booked by the police, while the attackers go scot-free.”

When Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), was asked to comment on the UCC as a Sikh woman, she replied, “Have they talked to any of us regarding what they are planning to do? Did they put the draft in the public domain? This is an election gimmick with the objective of creating hatred towards minorities.”

Kaur maintains that all religious laws discriminate against women, and the aim of this exercise should have been to bring in amendments, step by step, to address this discrimination.

“All personal laws need to be considered from the point of view of gender justice. To cite one example, child marriages are not allowed, but when families marry off their under-18 daughters, the marriage stands validated as long as there are no complaints,” she elaborates.

“But if a girl below 18 years of age elopes with a boy she is in a relationship with, and her parents complain, the boy will be booked for child rape. In one case, the boy is tried under law for committing rape, whereas in the other, no action is taken against him. Such contradictions need to be ironed out.”

Zinat Aman, whose mother Begum Aizaz Rasul was the first Muslim woman to be elected as a member of the UP Legislative Assembly from a non-reserved seat in pre-independent India, believes the UCC is “not being introduced with good intentions, especially since we have ceased to be a secular state after the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya by the prime minister.”

Aman is critical of the Muslim clergy, whom she considers very backward. They have done little to help the majority of conservative Muslims. “All Modi has succeeded in doing is spreading an anti-Muslim feeling across the country,” she observed. Aman’s own daughter is happily married to a Hindu man. She finds it impossible to understand how interfaith marriages can be dubbed ‘love jihad’.

Tribal communities, who constitute around 9 per cent of the country’s population, follow centuries-old customary laws and practices. They have their own tribal courts which settle matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. They too are fearful that a common code will mean the loss of their identity and culture.

The BJP insists there “cannot be gender equality till such time as India adopts a Uniform Civil Code”.

Minorities question the timing of the UCC’s implementation and consider it a regressive move with the less than noble intention of consolidating Hindu votes in order to win the general election.

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