Any sane leader will address these issues first, rather than banging their head against the wall setting up a CDU and provoking the predictable reactions.
Why India Needs a Uniform Civil Code. Image courtesy of McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons
For decades now, you have occasionally heard voices calling for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India. It is mentioned in the wish list of the Constitution, the guiding principles. In 1995, the Supreme Court questioned the government on progress towards this goal; in vain. Last January, he again summoned the government about it; Let’s see. Today, 75 years after independence, all matters relating to marriage, family and inheritance are still governed by separate legal codes for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis. Are there good reasons to abolish this arrangement?
Politicians in power in India clearly think not, because they have never disputed it. They wouldn’t mind meddling with the Christian legal system: Ever since they started out as a nervous minority in the mighty Roman Empire, Christians have abided by secular laws that aren’t of their own making. In Great Britain, in France or in the United States, Christians and non-Christians obey the same laws, and nowhere have Christians reacted with an indignant movement of legal separatism. It is not Christians who prevent politicians from enacting a UCC. In the modern Republic, the Christian community would have been absorbed into a UCC regime with everyone else, without the Muslim community.
What politicians fear should they adopt a UCC is the reaction of the Muslim community. Unlike Christianity, Islam has a determining system of laws, the Shariah. It is prevalent in most Muslim-majority countries, and in many others there are calls for its introduction. Muhammad was not a preacher whose reign was not of this world, like the Buddha or Jesus; he was the founder of a state endowed with a system of law. Abolish it could provoke a reaction from all the mosques and madrassas of the country. The theological reason is further reinforced by a personal reason: each individual Muslim cleric risks losing a great deal of power within their community if their area of expertise is no longer relevant. The BJP has already developed cold feet on the implementation of its hard-won Citizenship Amendment Act, which only has a very indirect impact on Muslims, so it will not have the stomach to implement a UCC. It’s too much Islamophobic for that: “fear of Islam”.
Most countries naturally have a CDU. But would they support India if it introduced the same? Compare with the normalization of Kashmir’s status in 2019. With the exception of Pakistan, all countries accepted it without delay. Not only was this an internal affair, but it abolished something they themselves would never agree to either: a separate status for one of their provinces, excluding their citizens from owning property there. Yet the international media still portrayed it as an act of anti-Muslim oppression, adding to their usual narrative of poor, hapless Muslims being constantly persecuted by horrid, vicious Hindus. The issue was not big enough to sway governments against India, but as far as UCC is concerned, it may be different. Indian and foreign media are likely to raise a storm if separate Islamic law is threatened; and that the party in power is not ready to take this heat.
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Apart from the real reason, reasons that sound better are mentioned. It is often assumed that Hindus only ask for a UCC because they fear that under Shariah Muslims take four wives and cross them. On social media you indeed come across this argument, and lay people always look for the weakest formulation of a Hindu position, some outbursts of Twitter trolls, to save themselves the trouble of responding to the real Hindu case. So they scoff at this clumsy Hindu argument, diverting the attention of the more serious.
It is true that the Muslim birth rate is always higher than that of the Hindus, but in this the right to polygamy is only a minimal factor. Monogamous Muslim households are even more procreatively focused: because Islamic culture offers more immunity from government propaganda about birth control and westernized lifestyles because the Islamic status of women is more resistant to women who opt for a career rather than a family because of the Islamic divorce agreement (with children entrusted to the father) encourages divorced women to start a new family, and because of the Prophet’s own exhortation to be more numerous. In countries with a CCU, the Muslim birth rate is also higher. Those who see this as a problem will have to find other solutions.
More problematic with this inequality is inequality. And this in two senses: Hindu and Muslim laws differ in content, but also differ in their relationship to the state. Hindu law is not the result of a decision by a Hindu clerical body, but of state intervention: Hindu Code Acts 1955-56. A UCC was part of the modernization process of most countries: the old feudal privileges of nobles or clerics were abolished. All citizens became equal before the law.
This is a characteristic feature of secular states: equality before the law, regardless of religion. It is claimed to satiety that “India is a secular state”, but it is not. A UCC is not a matter of Hindu Rashtra or whatever, it is a requirement of secularism. The next time you meet a layman, ask him what he did to institute a UCC. This is his job, not the Hindus’. No pre-modern Hindu state had a UCC, and Hindus were okay with that. But Hindus have adapted to the modern era: it is discriminatory to treat Muslims as unfit for this modernization. So long live the UCC.
Is this a call to the government to undertake the reform of the Civil Code without delay? Not really. There are much more urgent problems, much more important for the life chances of Hindu civilization and much easier to solve. These issues are the complete abolition of existing anti-Hindu discrimination in education and temple management. Any sane leader will address these issues first, rather than banging their head against the wall setting up a CDU and provoking the predictable reactions. They are desirable in themselves for all who value equality. Moreover, they can give more self-confidence to the Hindu society and thus prepare the ground for, one day, a UCC.
The author is a well-known Indologist from Belgium. The opinions expressed are personal.