Uniform Civil Code: Left liberals must change position or risk being sidelined by history

Liberalism, that cornerstone of a modern nation-state, has undergone a curious and radical transformation in India. Its practitioners — historically the Left which has an illustrious legacy of having authored most of the principles that serve as the foundation of a liberal democracy — have absolved themselves of all responsibilities when it comes to advocating for the common civil code.

The Left's continued and resolute failure to root for a truly progressive reform that replaces a clutch of illiberal and regressive personal laws has forced it to cede space to the conservative Right, which, in this case, has taken over the task of promoting, protecting and enhancing an individual's liberty within the principles of gender justice, human dignity and equality before law.

And because it finds itself fenced on the regressive side of history, the Left has sought to use the slur of "communal agenda" as a battering ram against the Right to stifle all debates around a civil code that in historian Ram Guha's words, "does not discriminate between individual citizens on the basis of caste, community, religion, or gender."

As the torchbearers of a legacy that includes fighting for universal adult suffrage, against patriarchy, in favour of gender justice and protection of minority rights, the Left must pause and take a long, hard look at its untenable position on the common civil code. Not only is it doing a grave disservice to the real minority (an individual vis-à-vis the community or state), it is fighting a futile battle against an idea whose time has clearly come.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

As the clamour led by Muslim women against triple talaq, nikah halala and polygamy has shown, the need for reform in Muslim personal law and its codification has arisen from within the community. And the struggle is being led by women — the most vulnerable section within the Muslim community. The women have shown an increasing awareness about their rights, raised a legitimate demand to be treated with due dignity and have sought equality before law — all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

The Left must therefore decide which side it wants to be on? The real minority that needs protection? Or a posse of entitled, chauvinistic, regressive power-mongers like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board whose real aim is to ensure their relevance in an ever-changing world and hold on to their sway over the community?

As a recent survey has shown, of the 4500 women interviewed by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, over 95.5 per cent have claimed they have never heard about the AIMPLB — the self-declared custodians and interpreters of Muslim law.

Does the Left (apropos the position taken by some of its venerated mouthpieces such as EPW — Uniform Civil Code: A Heedless Quest?) realize that in refusing to even engage in a debate over the reform and in taking a hard, reactionary position, it is transforming into an extended arm of the hierarchical, boorish law board whose very existence — to quote Tufail Ahmad — is antithetical to the Indian Constitution..?

In his piece Outlaw the Muslim Personal Law Board; Ensure Five Constitutional Paths for Reform, author, commentator and social reformer (also the Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC) Tufail Ahmad writes, "It (AIMPLB) is unconstitutional because such organisations were established with the objective of working against the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution. Since its founding in 1973, the AIMPLB has endorsed Sharia courts across India and runs a legal system parallel to the Indian constitution…. It is a privately-owned NGO that rules over the lives of Muslim masses. The ideas propagated by this anti-equality organisation do not fall within the sphere of freedom of speech."

And falling into the elaborate trap laid by such regressive interest groups, the Left has conflated the battle for gender justice, personal liberty and equality before law with the narrative that Article 25 of the Indian Constitution (that allows each and every individual to follow, practise and propagate the religion of his or her choice) is in danger if even a discussion over common civil code is undertaken.

The ruse of using identity politics to cloud the debate over a progressive reform isn't surprising. The interest groups led by the entitled maulanas and maulvis will do it to hang on to power and political parties — led by the Congress — will do it to keep Indians divided along religious fault lines. A common civil code in line with the CrPC and IPC does not harm the plurality of a nation. Giving women — and not just Muslim women — the ability to decide the course of their lives cannot be at odds with the right to practice one's own religion.

If certain retrogressive practices come in the way, those must be tested on the altar of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution — which guarantees that "the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India" — and dealt accordingly, as was done by Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar during the Hindu law reforms. It is another matter that the Congress now finds itself on the dustbins of history precisely because it has shifted away from the progressiveness of past to regression of present.

But the Left surely must look through the ruse. To quote Guha again from his Hindustan Times column: "…left-wing intellectuals who oppose a common civil code disavow the progressive heritage of socialist and feminist movements in India and across the world. They are — whether they sense it or not — apologists for the status quo, whose tortured and convoluted arguments only serve the interests of Muslim patriarchs and the Islamic clergy."

If the Left has ceded its space, it is only natural that the Right would step in to fill the vacuum. To raise the bogey of "communal agenda" against the Right for leading the cause for common civil code is end of logic. To suggest, as some left-wing commentators have done that the NDA government is "raising the pitch for one nation, one law to polarize the electorate" ahead of UP elections, reflects stunning arrogance and total disdain towards the electorate.

Reform can't be bad politics. There was considerable opposition towards Nehru and Ambedkar's move during codification of Hindu law. The effects of the reforms are evident. The Left must abandon its reflexive fear that Indian secularism can be hijacked by a few.

Updated Date: Oct 14, 2016 16:39 PM

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