Cover Feature
Yes to Gender Justice and Equality, No to the Politics of Communal Polarisation and Demonisation of Muslims in the Name of UCC!
by Dipankar Bhattacharya

Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the pitch of the clamour for the Uniform Civil Code in the course of his address to booth-level BJP activists in Bhopal, a viral video surfaced from the same state that showed a power-drunk BJP youth leader Pravesh Shukla urinating on an Adivasi labourer Dasmat Ravat. The video gave a shocking and graphic portrayal of the kind of (un)civil code that actually prevails on the ground in Madhya Pradesh where the BJP has been in power for nearly two decades. It is no secret that such acts of cruelty towards marginalised and oppressed social groups have been going on with impunity in almost all BJP-dominated states in West and North India. The Manusmriti, upheld by the Sangh brigade as their real constitution, actually provides social sanction for extreme forms of caste and gender discrimination and violence.

The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 had acknowledged this shocking social reality of caste violence and sought to curb it with more stringent legal provisions. But with the rise of the BJP and its aggressive politics of Hindutva, the Act has been rendered increasingly ineffective and there is a growing clamour for its dilution and even revocation. At the same time there has been a phenomenal increase in orchestrated hate crimes against the religious minorities, Muslims in particular. In the Modi era, mob lynching emerged as a new form of decentralised and privatised violence while the bulldozer became a new symbol of extra-judicial perpetration of revenge and terror by the state. Communal hate, caste atrocities and gender violence have grown simultaneously, one encouraging the other, even though the dominant media often remains complicit in downplaying and even legitimising communal hate crimes.

With elections round the corner and Adivasi votes being a significant factor in the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government has desperately resorted to some damage control exercises. The Chief Minister circulated a video of ‘penance’ where he can be seen ceremonially washing the feet of Dasmat Ravat, calling him his brother and assuring him of all help while a bulldozer was sent to demolish a section of Pravesh Shukla’s house and a video circulated showing Shukla being herded into a police vehicle. Clearly none of this would have happened if the video had not become viral and elections were not imminent. It is also clear that for every such incident that comes to limelight there are dozens more that never get any attention. Even as a terrorised Dasmat can be seen pleading for 'forgiving' his oppressor Pravesh Shukla, a new viral video shows two Adivasi youths being brutally thrashed in Indore.

How are we to look at the issue of uniform civil code against the backdrop of institutionalised denial of human dignity and rights in a system of social discrimination and oppression, hate and violence and political patronage and impunity for the perpetrators except when a perpetrator becomes an electoral liability like Pravesh Shukla in this Madhya Pradesh episode? The 22nd Law Commission has sought public opinion on the subject within a month’s time without giving us any idea as to what such a uniform code would entail. History tells us that after a sharp debate on the subject, the Constituent Assembly had settled for including it as a directive principle of state policy in the Constitution which by definition is not legally enforceable or justiciable. Babasaheb Ambedkar had wanted the idea of uniform civil code to remain voluntary for citizens. Even the 21st Law Commission had found the UCC neither necessary nor feasible at the present juncture and called instead for appropriate legal reforms to ensure gender justice and equality within the ambit of all personal laws. What has suddenly happened for the 22nd Law Commission to focus on the subject with such great urgency?

While the government is yet to come out with any concrete proposal about its idea of a uniform civil code, the Sangh-BJP propagandists are already busy maligning the Muslim community and painting every opposition to the UCC idea as instigation or appeasement of the Muslim community. In real life, we can already see serious apprehension and opposition being voiced not so much by the Muslim community as by North-Eastern states like Meghalaya and Nagaland and Adivasi communities from all parts of India. Home Minister Amit Shah and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law Sushil Modi have already indicated that Christians and North-Eastern States may be exempted from the ambit of the UCC. This is precisely the reason why the framers of the Constitution had kept the idea of the UCC in the directive principles and even as late as 2018, the 21st Law Commission had found the UCC neither necessary nor feasible. In fact, the diversity of customs in personal law concerns Hindus themselves, whose customs vary widely across regions, as much as non-Hindu religions and communities.

The 21st Law Commission was right in emphasising the need to reconcile diversity with equality instead of trying to impose uniformity in the name of unity. Quite surprisingly, even former RSS chief Golwalkar had categorically cautioned against the idea of imposing a uniform civil code on a vast and diverse country like India. Harmony, rather than uniformity, Golwalkar had pointed out in a long interview with KR Malkani, editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser in 1971, was necessary for India’s unity. The Modi government today is however in a hurry to abandon the caution advised by its own ideological and administrative predecessors as it believes that it has today reached a stage where it need not respect any restraint and that the UCC was its best bet to distract public attention from the pressing problems of the day and polarise India on communal lines.

Legal reform to ensure equality and justice is a continuing agenda and as directed by Article 44 of the Constitution the state must consistently move in this direction to ensure gender-just laws for women of all communities. And to implement Article 44 it cannot proceed in a vacuum without collective participation and concurrence of all stakeholders. Further, if the Modi government wants to accelerate the implementation of the directive principles of state policy, it cannot selectively focus on Article 44 to the neglect of other equally fundamental directives contained in the concerned section of the Constitution under Articles 36 to 51 that mandate the state to ensure universal right to work and guarantee of livelihood and reduction of income inequality and concentration of wealth and means of production in few hands.

Yet we cannot pretend that the current focus of the BJP on implementation of the UCC has anything to do with ensuring gender justice or with the spirit of the directive principles of state policy. In reality, the foregrounding of the UCC agenda is part of the broader project of communal polarisation and demonisation of Muslims. Along with the vicious myth of ‘love jihad’ the UCC is being promoted with barely disguised appeals to the preposterous narrative of ‘Muslims outnumbering Hindus’ epitomised by Modi’s notorious and absurdly inaccurate claims about the effects of polygamy on population growth. The opposition must foil this design, keep the focus on the burning issues like the escalating cost of living crisis and unemployment and defend the constitutional vision of a modern secular democratic India against every attempt to push the country back to universalisation of the Manusmriti code of social oppression and violence. Yes to gender justice and equality, no to the politics of communal polarisation and demonisation of Muslims in the name of UCC!

No to the Politics of Communal Polarisation