Code red

Pushing a revision of family laws is part of the BJP's pro-Hindutva anti-Muslim electoral strategy in UP

Code red
A debate is raging in India over a Uniform Civil Code that is aimed at creating a set of rules that would apply to all communities in India when it comes to family law, marriage, divorce, inheritance, rights. It has been met with stiff opposition from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other socio-religious organisations representing Muslims ever since the Law Commission of India issued a questionnaire seeking suggestions from the public, saying it wanted to revise and reform these laws.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre has cited Article 44 of the Indian Constitution as supporting a uniform civil code in the country but many experts have pointed out that it is in conflict with Article 25 that guarantees religious freedom. The debate apart, there are two important issues that make the questionnaire suspect—one is the timing and the other is the inherent contradictions which indicate that it is clearly targeting one particular community.
The BJP is facing a crucial electoral test in UP, which sent Modi to Delhi in 2014. The code is seen as aimed at UP's Hindutva constituency as this state is going to the polls early next year. These elections will be seen as a 'do or die' test for the BJP which must wrest power from the Samajwadi Party if it wants to continue in power beyond 2019

To explain the timing and the target it is important to look at one constituency and what it means for the BJP. The party is facing a crucial electoral test in Uttar Pradesh, which is the constituency that sent Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Delhi in the 2014 elections. The code is seen as aimed at UP’s Hindutva constituency as this state is going to the polls early next year. These elections will be seen as a ‘do or die’ test for the BJP which must wrest power from the Samajwadi Party if it wants to ensure that it is in a position to continue in power in Delhi beyond 2019.

The BJP’s core ideology of Hindutva revolves round three major demands of the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 that gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the enforcement of Uniform Civil Code. Essentially these demands have been used for electoral gains. Consider: After Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, the BJP did not move on reconstruction with vigour. To become part of the government in Jammu and Kashmir, it agreed on the “Agenda of Alliance” with the PDP not to raise the issue of Article 370. And when it is entering the electoral battle in UP, it has sought to up the ante on the code by issuing a questionnaire. This is obviously aimed at making the Muslims insecure and persuade the BJP’s constituency that the party is following the Hindutva agenda.

A cursory look at the 16 questions casts suspicion on the intention of forming the code, which is ostensibly aimed at making uniform rules for all religious denominations in the country. For example, there is a question about having more than one wife. Since the Hindu Code Bill has already barred Hindus from entering into a second marriage, this question is directed at Muslims. It is a different matter that there are more instances of more than one marriage among Hindus than Muslims.

The questionnaire also dwells on triple talaq. Indeed, the government and its supporters have also been pitching for the abolition of triple talaq and the case is already in court, which is apparently following the same line. More than 50,000 Muslim women have even signed a petition. Of course, the arguments that it is an arbitrary method and works against Muslim women should both be part of a debate on the issue. But the question here is whether the government can dictate aspects of the personal law of Muslims and if this constitutes as direct interference in their religious matters. Even liberal Muslims agree that such a diktat cannot come from the government. Whether triple talaq is bad or good has to be decided by Muslim scholars given that Islam has the provision of Ijtihad (the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah). In this particular case, and maybe others, there is strong need for reforms but they should come from within society and not just the government. Those who are for the abolition of triple talaq say that it has been done away with in 22 countries, including Pakistan, but they fail to understand that this outcome was the result of a certain process and it was not abolished by outrightly passing a law and thrusting it on society.

The 16 questions

The Law Commission of India issued a 16-question circular on Oct 7, 2016 in an exercise to revise and reform family law. It is due in 45 days and is open to the public. TFT has reproduced it here but edited some parts out over space restrictions.

  1. Are you aware that Article 44 of the Constitution of India provides that “the state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a Uniform Civil Code throughout the territory of India”?

  2. The various religious denominations are governed by personal laws and customary practices in India on matters of family law, should the UCC include all or some of these subjects?

- Marriage

- Divorce

- Adoption

- Guardianship and child custody

- Maintenance

- Successions and

- Inheritance

  1. Do you agree that the existing personal laws and customary practices need codification and would benefit people?

  2. Will uniform civil code or codification of personal law and customary practices ensure gender equality?

  3. Should the uniform code be optional?

  4. Should the following practices be banned and regulated?

- Polygamy (banned/regulated)

- Polyandry (banned/regulated)

- Similar customary practices such as Maitri-karaar (friendship deed) et al. (banned/regulated)

  1. Should the practice of triple talaaq be:

- Abolished in toto

- Retained

- Retained with suitable amendments

  1. Do you think that steps should be taken to ensure that Hindu women are better able to exercise their right to property, which is often bequeathed to sons under customary practice?

  2. Do you agree that the two-year period of wait for finalising divorce violates Christian women’s right to equality?

  3. Do you agree that there should be a uniform age of consent for marriage across all personal laws and customary practices?

  4. Do you agree that all religious denominations should have the common grounds for divorce?

  5. Would uniform civil code aid in addressing the problem of denial of maintenance to women upon divorce?

  6. How can compulsory registration of marriages be implemented better?

  7. What measures should we take to protect couples who enter into inter-religion and inter-caste marriages?

  8. Would uniform civil code infringe on an individual’s right to freedom of religion?

  9. What measures should be taken to sensitize society towards a common code or codification of personal law?


Similarly, it is true that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board needs to be rejuvenated and since it consists of only men, recalibrated to have more representation by women. A lot more needs to be done by the community itself to bring reforms to personal law and other matters. Community leaders should not remain frozen in time. This is less about the reforms and more to do with Muslim identity as it is distinct culturally because of the spirit of the faith.

If it had been sincere, the government could have set up a parliamentary committee to deliberate issues with stakeholders. But by issuing a skewed questionnaire, it has revealed its intention to push the Muslim community to the wall. Today’s debate is centred on the outlook that the BJP government has no moral authority to tell Muslims that they should join any process aimed at reforms for the simple reason that this government legitimizes violence against beef eating. A person accused of killing Akhlaq Ahmed of Dadri in UP over the suspicion of storing beef in his house is given “national honour”. As he passed away in jail, his body was wrapped in the flag and a minister of the Modi government attended his cremation. BJP’s policy is simple: make the community submit through power and majoritarianism and use issues like the code to grab power. If at all the BJP were sincere it should have moved forward on implementing the Sachar Committee report that chronicles the pathetic condition of Muslims in the world’s largest democracy. Noise about the code may help the BJP gain votes in the coming elections but it does not help infuse any confidence among Muslims, the most vulnerable lot in today’s India.

The writer is a senior journalist in

Srinagar and can be reached at