Saturday, 22 October 2016

Fight for Gender Justice and Equality Reject Communally-Defined ‘Uniformity’
The manner in which the Law Commission and the NDA Government frame the issue of Uniform Civil Code and reforms in personal laws suggests that they are concerned more with imposing a communally-defined uniformity on minorities in the country, rather than address concerns of gender justice. The communal framing of the debate does serious damage to the urgent questions of gender justice.    
BJP and RSS propaganda of ‘One Nation One Law’ is a direct assault on the Constitutional norms of respect for India’s religious and cultural diversity. This propaganda implies that it is only the personal laws of the minorities – especially the Muslim minority – that need reform – and that ‘Uniform Civil Code’ is a matter of bringing Muslim or Christian personal law in line with Hindu Personal Law.
In fact, most religious and secular personal laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession are in need of reform to bring them in line with Constitutional norms of gender justice and equality. For instance, the amendment of Hindu inheritance laws to allow the daughter to inherit ancestral property continues to face great hostility and be widely violated, with no safeguards against disinheritance of a daughter.
Under the Hindu Marriage Act, a divorced man can discontinue payment of maintenance if the ex-wife is ‘unchaste’ or converts to another religion. This provision ties maintenance to patriarchal moral codes and religious identity, rather than the rights of women. The definition of ‘cruelty’ as grounds for divorce under the Hindu marriage law is loose – leaving room for arbitrary and patriarchal definitions of cruelty. A recent Supreme Court judgement is a shocking instance of this when it declared that a wife demanding that her husband live separately from his parents amounts to ‘cruelty’ and can be grounds for divorce.
The one-month notice period of the secular Special Marriage Act also requires reform since the prolonged waiting period allows room for parents and communal-casteist outfits to mobilize violence against inter-caste or inter-faith couples. Polygamy enjoys recognition in Muslim Personal Law, while the ‘Maitri Karar’ (Friendship Pact) practice in Gujarat legitimizes bigamy. It is a communal myth that only the Muslim community enjoys ‘special’ relaxations when it comes to personal law. In fact, the Hindu Undivided Family enjoys special tax exemptions, exemptions which are extended even to Hindu couples who marry under the Special Marriage Act.  
From within the Muslim community itself, there have for long been demands for scrapping of the practices of triple talaq and halala that are inscribed in Muslim personal law.
Unfortunately, the Indian State and ruling parties have been cynical and opportunist rather than principled in their obligations both towards women’s rights and the rights of minority communities. The Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case was overturned by a Congress Government in a bid to pander to conservative leaders of the Muslim community, even as the same Government pandered to Hindutva by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid. The BJP gave the demand for a Uniform Civil Code a distinctly communal tone and colour – leading most women’s movement groups to emphasise that they demanded gender-just reform in diverse personal laws – preferably reform from within religious communities themselves – rather than imposition of Hindutva-tinted uniformity.   
In 2015, in the course of a Supreme Court hearing on Hindu women’s succession rights, the matter of discrimination faced by Muslim women also came up. In response the SC ordered the filing of a PIL on ‘Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality.’ Subsequently there have been several instances of Muslim women who approached the Supreme Court seeking that the provisions of triple talaq and halala be struck down as unconstitutional. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, responding to these petitions in Court, have argued that the Court cannot encroach on the domain of personal laws. Meanwhile the Law Commission has issued a questionnaire to reopen the debate on the need for a Uniform Civil Code – and the AIMPLB has refused to participate in this process, deeming it to be part of the BJP Government’s communal agenda to undermine diverse personal laws and impose uniformity.
The Law Commission questionnaire’s format is undoubtedly flawed and biased, and misgivings about its agenda have a strong foundation. By reopening the issue of a Uniform Civil Code and polarising the discussion for or against the UCC, the Law Commission is only furthering the communal agenda of the ruling party. The BJP that sheds crocodile tears for discrimination faced by Muslim women is the same party that colludes in the rape and murder of Muslim women during communal violence in Gujarat and more recently Muzaffarnagar.      
The vociferous demands by a variety of Muslim women’s groups and individual Muslim women for reforms in personal laws are an extremely welcome development. These groups (such as the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, Bebaak Collective and others) and individual women have put both the communal BJP as well as the patriarchal AIMPLB on notice. They have made it clear that they will no longer brook any delay in addressing their demands for equality and justice. If the self-proclaimed custodians of Muslim personal law prove unwilling to heed the demands for change, they have asserted their rights to approach the Courts and the State for justice.    
The Left and progressive forces in the country, while firmly opposing any agenda of forced imposition of a communally scripted Uniform Civil Code, must support the ongoing women’s movements demanding personal laws that uphold women’s equality and dignity.
ML Update
A CPI(ML) Weekly News Magazine

Vol.19 | No. 43 | 18- 24 October 2016

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