Any sensible leader will take up these issues first, rather than banging his head against the wall by implementing a UCC and provoking the foreseeable reactions
Why India needs UniformCivil Code. Image courtesy McKay Savage/Wikimedia Commons
For decades already, you occasionally hear voices clamoring for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India. It is mentioned in the Constitution’s wish list, the Directive Principles. In 1995, the Supreme Court asked the government about the progress towards this goal; in vain. This January, it summoned the government again on this; let’s see. Today, 75 years after Independence, all matters pertaining to marriage, family and inheritance are still governed by separate law codes for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis. Are there good reasons to abolish this arrangement?
India’s ruling politicians clearly think not, for they have never challenged it. They wouldn’t mind meddling in the Christian law system: ever since starting as a nervous minority in the mighty Roman empire, Christians have conformed to secular laws not of their own making. In Britain, France or the US, Christians and non-Christians obey the same laws, and nowhere have Christians reacted with an indignant movement of legal separatism. It is not the Christians who keep the politicians from enacting a UCC. Come the modern Republic, the Christian community would have been absorbed into a UCC regime along with everybody else, were it not for the Muslim community.
What the politicians fear in case they were to enact a UCC is the reaction of the Muslim community. Unlike Christianity, Islam has a defining law system, the Shari’ah, It prevails in most Muslim-majority countries, and in many others there are demands for introducing it. Mohammed was not a preacher whose reign was not of this world, like the Buddha or Jesus; he was the founder of a state with a law system. Abolishing it might provoke a reaction from every mosque and madrassa in the country. The theological reason is moreover strengthened by a personal reason: every individual Muslim cleric stands to lose a lot of power within his community if his area of expertise is made irrelevant. The BJP has already developed cold feet about implementing its hard-won Citizenship Amendment Act, which only very tangentially impacts the Muslims, so it won’t have the stomach for implementing a UCC. It is too Islamophobic for that: “afraid of Islam”.
Most countries have a UCC as a matter of course. But would they support India if it introduces the same thing? Compare with the normalization of Kashmir’s status in 2019. Save for Pakistan, all countries accepted this without any ado. Not only was it an internal matter, but it abolished something that they themselves would never accept 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 anti-Muslim act of oppression, adding to their usual narrative of poor hapless Muslims being constantly persecuted by the ugly vicious Hindus. The issue was not important enough for swaying governments against India, but regarding UCC this may be different. It is likely that both Indian and foreign media will raise a storm if the separate Islamic law is threatened; and that the ruling party is not ready to take this heat.
Apart from the real reason, better-sounding reasons are brought up. It is often assumed that Hindus only demand a UCC because they fear that under Shari’ah Muslims take four wives and outbreed them. On social media you do indeed encounter that argument, and secularists always seek out the weakest formulation of a Hindu position, some Twitter trolls’ outburst, to save themselves the trouble of answering the real Hindu case. So they make fun of this clumsy Hindu argument, distracting from the more serious ones.
It is true that the Muslim birthrate is always higher than the Hindu ones, but in that, the right to polygamy is only a minimal factor. Monogamous Muslim households are still more procreation-oriented: because Islamic culture provides more immunity against governmental birth-control propaganda and Westernized lifestyles because the Islamic status of women is more resistant to women opting for a career instead of a family because of the Islamic divorce arrangement (with the children entrusted to the father) encourages repudiated women to start a new family, and because of the Prophet’s own exhortation to be more numerous. In countries with a UCC, the Muslim birthrate is higher too. Those who see that as a problem will need to find other solutions.
More problematic with this inequality is inequality, And this in two senses: Hindu and Muslim laws differ content-wise, but also differ in their relation to the state. Hindu law does not result from a decision by a clerical Hindu body, but from state intervention: Hindu Code Acts 1955-56. A UCC was part of the modernization process of most countries: ancient feudal privileges for nobles or clerics were abolished. All citizens became equal before the law.
This is a defining trait of secular states: equality before the law regardless of one’s religion. It is claimed ad nauseam that “India is a secular state”, but it isnt. A UCC is not a matter of Hindu Rashtra or so, it is a requirement of secularism. Next time you meet a secularist, ask him what he has done for instituting a UCC. It is his job, not that of the Hindus. No pre-modern Hindu state had a UCC, and Hindus were fine with that. But Hindus have adapted to the modern age: it is discriminatory to treat Muslims as unfit for this modernisation. So, long live the UCC.
Is this a call to the government to take up Civil Code reform forthwith? Not really. There are issues far more urgent, far more consequential for the life chances of Hindu civilisation, and far easier to achieve. These issues are the complete abolition of the existing anti-Hindu discrimination in education and temple management. Any sensible leader will take up these issues first, rather than banging his head against the wall by implementing a UCC and provoking the foreseeable reactions. They are desirable in their own right for all who value equality. Moreover, they may give Hindu society more self-confidence and thus prepare the ground for, one day, a UCC.
The writer is a well-known Indologist from Belgium. Views expressed are personal.