By Ila Ananya
On October 13, after the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) declared that they would boycott the National Law Commission’s new questionnaire asking for the opinion of people on a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), NDTV ran a discussion that boiled down to an argument between Flavia Agnes, lawyer and co-founder of Majlis Legal Centre, and Sambit Patra, member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Agnes vehemently argued that the idea for a UCC as introduced by the BJP is a Hindu nationalist political agenda, which promoted the idea that Hindu personal law is better than the Muslim or Christian personal law. In response, Patra smirked as he quoted Ambedkar’s statement in favour of a UCC.
So far so predictable.
Agnes and others have been arguing for over a decade now, that the National Democratic Alliance’s interest in the UCC is not about Article 44 of the Indian Constitution (which pertains to a uniform civil code), and that it’s just in pursuit of the Hindu rashtra of the NDA’s fantasies. As Alok Prasanna Kumar, a legal scholar and Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, wrote recently, the UCC could mean many possible things: it could remove all traces of religion from personal laws, or it could also simply be an extension of Hindu law to be imposed on everybody. If Patra had continued talking about the UCC in terms of uniformity then he would just be following the party line, since the push for the UCC was also mentioned in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, and the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had also tried to have this implemented.
But surprise, post-smirk Patra declared magnanimously that Agnes was the one reducing the argument to one about religion, when the real aim of the UCC was “gender equality and parity”. It’s a clever move, because now, any naysayer is clearly anti-women.
This is neat and one that might lure support from even those who are otherwise suspiscious of the BJP’s high-speed nationalism treadmill, because nothing ignites the saviour complex of even liberal Indian men and women than the Plight of Muslim Women. Especially Muslim women who seem to be politically represented by Obaidullah Khan Azmi, former Rajya Sabha MP, an office-bearer of the AIMPLB and a brand new member of the Congress party. Azmi reportedly said, “My advice to Modi is to better worry about his wife Jashodaben’s interests than to worry about Muslim women.”
The AIMPLB’s call to boycott the UCC questionnaire isn’t surprising. What is interesting, however, is how Muslim women have responded to the UCC, successfully distancing themselves both from a government that’s suddenly pretending to be invested in gender equality, and from male-centric Muslim organisations like the AIMPLB.
Maria Salim of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), made it clear on the NDTV debate that while the Law Commission’s questionnaire is a democratic way of beginning a discussion on the UCC, the BMMA believed in reforming the Muslim personal law from within.
Hasina Khan, founder-member of Bebaak Collective, an umbrella of Muslim women’s groups, adds another layer to the debate. As she said to The Ladies Finger, the UCC supporters’ idea of ‘uniformity’ has never really been explained. On the other hand, the collective has publicly criticised the AIMPLB’s affidavit to the Supreme Court in September. While Bebaak criticises the triple talaq they also vociferously criticise the patriarchy of the AIMPB. Khan had asked then, “Does the AIMPLB think we are completely stupid and can’t make decisions for ourselves?’
It’s a question to remember when you look at the National Law Commission’s questionnaire. Agnes’ critique that the questionnaire only targets Muslims is easily understood. The questionnaire has 16 questions, most of which require yes or no answers. Of the 16 questions, only one refers to the right to property under Hindu law, and another refers to divorce laws for Christian women, while all the other questions are suitably vague, and don’t hint at how any response will be implemented. Some of the other questions are about whether a uniform civil code should be optional, or if it would ensure gender equality or infringe on individual rights to freedom of religion, others are about triple talaq and polygamy, and seem to be targeted at Muslims.
The introduction to the questionnaire says that its objective is to “address discrimination against vulnerable groups and harmonise the various cultural practices” — not surprisingly, the AIMPLB has declared that they are boycotting the questionnaire because it threatens the “pluralistic fabric of India”, and would “paint all in one colour” (funnily enough, Hasina Khan had previously criticised the AIMPLB on the same grounds). But what the questionnaire fails to take into consideration is the question of who it’s being answered by, and as Khan says, whose minority responses will be made invisible in these laws.
Since the 1980s, a range of Muslim women’s organisations have been arguing for their rights, including economic rights, and very often from different positions. Today, many such organisations, (like the BMMA, whose press release condemns the attempt to politicise the debate by mixing up triple talaq and UCC), say that perhaps the way to proceed is to begin by making changes within the personal laws. “Our fight has always been for the eradication of unQuranic practices like the triple talaq and nikah halala. Triple talaq needs to be abolished on an urgent basis, even as discussions on the UCC go on, since the UCC is a larger question that concerns all Indian citizens,” says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of the BMMA. The Bebaak Collective is on record saying that “their position on triple talaq is not dependent on whether religious scriptures validate it or not because they oppose the practice anyway.”
Either way, as Mary E John, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies argues, women have no reason to believe that the right wing suddenly have their interests in mind. In an essay in the Hindu co-written by John and Hasina Khan, they have also said that the UCC, coming from the present government, would only mean the further marginalisation of Muslim women. Since the Sachar Committee report on the status of Muslims a decade ago, John and Khan write that their status is “likely to have declined further given their increased marginalisation in social, economic, and political terms, making it almost certain that Muslim women are on average worse off today than they were just 10 years ago.” While members of the BMMA continue to argue that there must be a change from within, and are demanding the codification of Muslim personal laws with clear provisions on age of marriage, mehr, triple talaq, or polygamy, John also suggests that perhaps one idea would be to circulate an alternative questionnaire to the one floated by the National Law Commission.
The debate is drowned in saviour smirks and the kind of dog-whistle media moment academic Nivedita Menon points to in her recent essay on the UCC. Menon describes a newspaper interview with Shayara Bano, central to this round of UCC debates since she filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court challenging triple talaq as being in violation of her fundamental rights.
Menon writes that the interview “concluded with a startling question — ‘What about the “Bharat Mata ki Jai” slogan controversy?’ Ms. Bano replies, ‘I feel all Muslims should say Bharat Maa ki Jai.’ Does the question seem irrelevant in the context of Ms. Bano’s fight for personal justice? What does compulsory chanting of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ have to do with a woman fighting patriarchy? But the question does not seem irrelevant at all; it seems to be at the heart of the interview. This alone should alert us to what the demand for a Uniform Civil Code is actually about.”
As Khan argues, “New and different voices of women need to enter public discourse. Perhaps if the Law Commission interacted with women who have been a part of women’s movements in India over the years, things would work better.” A sterling and stirring soundbyte, if people were actually paying attention to what Muslim women are saying.