Balbir K. Punj is not one of my favorite writers nor do I agree with him on nine out of ten subjects. However, once in a while, he writes a column that bounces off a thought that I’ve had in the past. Like this latest one:
Tennis prodigy and India’s hope for the world tennis crown, Sania Mirza, says she won’t be taking to the Indian tennis courts in the near future. Reason: she is “tired” of the constant criticism of her sports uniform and other off- and on-court behaviour by orthodox Muslims. In the follow-up, several newspapers have lambasted this orthodoxy and asked the liberals why they were so silent. Had it been some hothead from the Hindu extremists, the entire liberal “secular establishment” would have jumped on the critic bandwagon and, for good measure, dragged in the BJP into their web of opprobrium.
The reason why this struck a chord with me is because this reminded me of my feelings about an Uniform Civil Code in India.
The great tragedy of the UCC is that liberals, secularists, communists and centrists have allowed the religious right wing to pretty much hijack the issue. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that they have followed the path of least resistance and most convenience by practically ceding the stage to the right. When was the last time you saw anyone other than some crazed rightwinger bring up the topic and present it in any guise other than a matter of Hindus-done-wrong or BJP-is-out-to-get-us?
Thing is, Hindus aren’t the ones who really feel the pain of the discriminatory civil code – it’s the Muslims and Christians. Even if I were to take the Hindu right wing argument to heart and say that Hindus are hard done by because minorities get to follow their own civil codes based on their religion whereas Hindus have seen considerable reform in their own personal laws, what exactly should Hindus get upset about? That their women have equal inheritance rights? That polygamy isn’t permissable? That divorce requires the completion of legal formalities and the grant of alimony? That their adopted children are treated on par with biological children? I can’t think of one single way in which separate civil codes have harmed my life as an Indian citizen.
I can, however, think of a great many Christians and Muslims who have indeed been hard done by. But in the absence of real discourse, votebank politics and shrill demagoguery is pretty much all these people can look forward to. Consider, for example, that we now live in an era where news and opinions are available around the clock – to no purpose whatsoever. Someone (Mark Tully?) was bemoaning just the other day that we now have TV channels beaming political shows round the clock, but every single one of them was a lot more interested in bringing on the fireworks by inviting extremists of every hue to slug it out rather than bringing together the moderates to talk things over in a way that would present the issues front and center instead of simply inflaming passions in order to win the maximum possible converts.
Unfortunately, given our tendency to turn into a mob the moment we feel our sentiments have been hurt (whether or not we have all the facts in hand), moderates seem content to follow the arguments of people like Mani Shankar Aiyyar. It’s been a while since I read his Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist but I remember an entertaining section about this issue called “The Four Wives of the Apocalypse”. But much as I enjoyed reading it, I also disagreed with it.
He might be correct about his assumptions about the religious right, but religious right doesn’t merely mean the Hindu right. There is also a Muslim right and a Christian right and a Sikh right, etc and each of them is just as bad as the Hindu right. The establishment of an UCC should ideally be proposed as a default measure – there is no reason why a devoutly religious Muslim or Christian should not follow the precepts of their religion if all the parties are willing participants. But what of that Indian citizen who does not seek a religious solution for their problem? Take, for instance, the law against dowry. Despite its existence, there are tons of Hindus who give and receive dowry as a matter of course. Then there are those women who are harassed for it – and they have the law to back them up. [And yes, I know of the problems besetting that law – I’m saving it for another post so please, spare me the feminists-are-evil rant. I’ve heard them all. I’m just using an example here.] So if a Muslim woman finds it acceptable for her husband to divorce her by saying “Talaq” three times, it’s absolutely no skin off my nose or yours. But if she wants to contest it, then she should have the right to do so.
Of course, such a code will pinch at first. For better or for worse, as Aiyyar indicates in his book, polygamy has become the benchmark of the debate swirling around the adoption of an UCC. To the point where one has almost forgotten that there are more people affected by this issue than Muslims. But if the rest of India – and a number of avowedly Muslim states around the world – could deal with such restrictions, then so could the Muslims in India. Frankly, I think it’s insulting to suggest that Muslims are incapable of accepting the kind of change the rest of us underwent decades ago. Fundamentalists aside, I tend to agree with Aiyyar in that polygamy tends to depend on socio-economic factors: I think I’ve come across exactly one polygamous Muslim family even though I and my family have several friends who’re Muslim. In fact, I know more polygamists in my very Hindu family than I’ve ever seen elsewhere (I’m happy to report that none of them broke the law – when they got married, polygamy was allowed).
However much sense it might have made for Warren Hastings in the 18th century to divide the laws according to religion, this is 21st century India. If every Indian is truly equal today, then that equality should extend to the eyes of the law.