Recently, the Delhi High Court upheld the marriage of a 15-year-old Muslim girl, and going by this logic, the marriage of a 14-year-old Catholic girl would also be valid (since Catholic law permits the same). In the light of this, I reiterate my support to the cause of a uniform civil code in our country. So, what did you just call me? Communal? Well, if I heard you correctly, then I am sorry you don’t know what secularism really means, and I would say that for all those media personnel who call this demand of the BJP (by the way, I am not overall a strong supporter of the BJP or for that matter, any political party per se), as also that of abrogating Article 370 of the constitution (which I personally don’t support), communal. A demand for imposing Hindu law on the religious minorities would certainly be communal, but doing away with different personal laws for different religious groups, including the Hindus, is completely secular. Yes, it is true that the saffron brigade is the only entity that has consistently raised its voice for the cause of a uniform civil code, just as it has been for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Hindus, but while I have points of agreement with them on these issues, I don’t support them (I believe it’s utterly hypocritical on their part to cry hoarse about injustice meted out to Muslim girls owing to regressive laws but not strongly condemn raping and killing of innocent Muslim girls when Hindu-Muslim riots are on). And that is because we seem to have a much skewed understanding of secularism. Being partial to others is not impartiality and supporting regressive forces in minority communities is not secularism.
Secularism as a concept emerged in Europe when the demand was made for the Church to not interfere in the affairs of the State. Secularism means religion (whichever one it may be) having no role in the politico-legal framework and being a personal affair, not the State embracing multiple religions. A secular person need not accept all religions as true, he may very well be an atheist averse to the idea of religion, but he/she won’t hold a prejudice against any individual for the religion practiced by him/her. Perhaps no country other than India, claiming to be a full-fledged secular state (and Israel would certainly not fall in this category), follows different personal laws for different religious communities. Certain Muslim groups in the UK and Australia (but not the entire Muslim populace of these countries) have demanded the implementation of the sharia in their respective countries but their demands were not accepted, for the family laws there are the same for people of all faiths, but equally, everyone is free to visit his/her place of worship and propagate his/her faith.
In India, we have uniform criminal laws (we don’t have stoning as a punishment for Muslims or Jews engaging in adultery), contract laws, tort laws etc., so why not family laws that would be just and in conformity with our constitutional values? I am not making any value judgment on any faith (I am not in the least prejudiced against Islam and consider Prophet Muhammad to be a great figure in world history; indeed, objections to the idea of a uniform civil code have come not only from Muslims but also Christians and Parsis, though there are individuals in all these communities, Muslims included, that support this cause as well), but I do believe that laws that came up early in history in a certain part of the world are not necessarily valid in 21st century India and arguably, even religions offer scope for flexibility and dynamism in legal structures, and certain practices carried out with a religious sanction may actually amount to a misinterpretation of religious texts. But in today’s day and age, only modern human rights conceptions should serve as the touchstone of our legal frameworks and not religious texts which certain people believe in out of personal choice. People within the same community might interpret scriptures differently, while still others may even reject them, and so, why should the State impose a legal framework based on a certain interpretation of faith on them? Hindu personal laws prohibiting widow remarriage or allowing sati or polygamy have been amended and the khap panchayats’ demand that intra-gotra marriages should be declared illegal has not been given any weight and rightly so but as the Supreme Court has pointed out, our legislatures have been rather disinclined to reform the personal laws of the religious minorities, which is a let-down of the liberal and progressive individuals in those communities who believe in our constitutional values.
Our own constitution-framers who made India a secular state by inserting Articles 25 to 30 in the constitution that safeguard the right to practice and propagate one’s religion and the rights of the religious minorities to set up educational institutions also inserted Article 44 of our constitution that directs the State to introduce a uniform civil code, considering it a culmination of the process of secularization. The continuation of different personal laws after independence was to help Indian Muslims overcome their post-partition trauma and was meant to be temporary. It’s high time that a political will be mustered to introduce a uniform civil code so that we don’t see a rerun of injustice for Shah Bano (it is noteworthy that prominent scholars of Islam like Asghar Ali Engineer had supported the Supreme Court verdict and been critical of its practically being undone by the introduction of a legislation by Rajiv Gandhi; Arif Mohammed Khan, a Muslim intellectual in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, resigned for this very reason), no debate on questions like we had for Imrana, no restriction on Christians and Parsis to adopt children and no legally acceptable child marriages. However, this dream can turn into reality only if we promote the cause of secularism in its basic essence through our education system and other means as not being embracing diverse religions in the public sphere but by relegating religion into the personal sphere of an individual. This should be made integral to our idea of India, since it is a perquisite to unity in diversity in a fashion that would truly conform to the ideals of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution.[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:
The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society, a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed in this article are personal.[/box]