It is indeed an irony that Hindu religious fundamentalists are championing the cause of the uniform civil code — a secular framework of legal dispensation in family matters – where as the self-professed Hindu secularists are on the back foot on this issue.
The Hindu secular retreat is, of course, explained by the fact the Muslim religious fundamentalists are opposed to the very idea of a common civil code, as they view it as interference in their religious matters. It is rather strange that Hindu secular forces do not find it incongruent to express solidarity with the most outspoken voice of the biggest minority community, even if that voice is admittedly regressive.
In the dogfight between the Muslim and Hindu religious fundamentalists the professed Hindu secularists have largely cast their lot with the former where as Muslim secularists are increasingly favouring the idea of a uniform civil code – an idea that is strongly pitched by Hindu fundamentalists. It is an interesting scenario: Hindu communalists and Muslim secularists are objectively on the same side in the Uniform Civil Code debate where as Muslim communalists and Hindu secularists are virtually sharing the same podium. This obnoxious situation has been created because of twin developments – partly due to certain historical circumstances and partly because of certain hypocritical posture of the secularists – especially the Hindu secularists.
In this bizarre turf war, the Muslim secularists are the shining stars. In India, a Hindu-majority country, they belong to the largest minority community but they have broken ranks with the Maulvis, the religious leaders who want to invoke fear psychosis among co-religionists to perpetuate decadent religious practices.
These Muslim radicals have come up with specific tenets to codify the Muslim Personal Law, the same way the Hindu radicals had banded together to formulate the Hindu Personal Law after independence. Of course, Hindus are the majority community and they are not a victim of the persecution complex in the same way the religious minorities are (the same situation exists for the minority Hindus in a Muslim-majority Kashmir).
So the position of the Muslim radicals is way more noteworthy compared to their Hindu counterparts; after all, Maulvis have lampooned these progressive Muslims for taking a position that makes them strange bed fellows with the Hindu communal groups. But Muslim radicals have refused to be browbeaten by such unfair accusations; they insist that they advocate a position which is in the larger interest of the Indian Muslims; if Hindu communalists support their stance, so be it. They consider the codification of their personal law an intra-religious affair; they insist that they did not seek the support of the Hindu fundamentalists in this matter nor did they care for such support. They have no qualms in exposing the Hindu communal campaign as a divisive agenda. But, unfortunately, Hindu radicals have not taken an equally forthright position. They have, of course, been in the forefront in denouncing the shenanigans of the Hindu fundamentalists, but they have not mustered enough courage to take on the might of the Muslim fundamentalists.
As a matter of fact, many of them have repeatedly taken a stance in support of the religious conservatives, though such a stance is objectively against the interest of the ordinary Muslims. When the Supreme Court, in its historic Shah Bano judgement (1985), lacerated the conservative Muslim stance and awarded maintenance to the divorced Muslim woman for whole life, the religious leaders of Muslims rose in revolt while Hindu fundamentalists rejoiced.
The Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed to the pressure of the conservative Muslims and enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights in Divorce) Act, 1986 (MWA). This law effectively sought to nullify the core award given to a Muslim woman by the SC judgement – maintenance for whole life. The MW Act provided a divorced Muslim woman the traditional Mahr (which is given to a Muslim woman in consideration of marriage) and a lump sum amount (without specifying what that lump sum means) during the Iddat period (three months after the divorce during which period the divorced woman cannot remarry).
The Congress government’s move appeased Muslim religious leaders who withdrew their protest; ironically, many self-professed Hindu radicals supported the government move in order to counter the Hindu fundamentalists’ endorsement of the Supreme Court verdict. Their argument was a virtual echo of the Maulvis’ contention: that the SC judgement would strike at the root of the Muslim identity; that it would compromise the spirit of diversity which is the hallmark of a democratic culture.
It is true that the Supreme Court judges had entered into a treacherous territory when they decided to interpret Quran to buttress their argument in the Shah Bano case. But the larger point the SC judges made deserved to be applauded: that the Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code -- which is religion-neutral and which provides for adequate maintenance for a divorced woman during her life-time – would override the provisions of the Muslim Personal Law.
By refusing to recognise the secular and feminist implications of the Shah Bano judgement and by making common cause with the fundamentalist-backed legislation at the behest of a minority vote-bank obsessed government, the Hindu secularists unwittingly fell into a communal trap.
The conclusion is obvious: that progressive Muslims have better credentials in their contribution to the secular cause compared to their Hindu counterparts.