Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

India needs a Uniform Civil Code today. Without it, no Indian has the right by law to be an Indian in personal life. He or she must remain not even a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh Indian, but, ultimately, a denominational or sub-denominational one at that, down to the gotra by Khap law. What an unfolding of the inner hollowness and humbug of Indian secularism

Make Haste and Prioritise Carefully

With a streamlined government, now is the time for a Uniform Civil Code.

By B G Verghese

Tribune, 31 May, 2014

Mr Modi is now firmly in the saddle. He should not let his enthusiasm outpace what should be a measured administrative stride nor allow his colleagues to derail him by thoughtless word or deed. The swearing-in was hyped beyond measure both as a spectacle and a diplomatic coup. The first was a bit of a bore with ninety minutes of repetitive swearing-in while the ensuing talks with the visiting heads of government and others could not be path-breaking without key ministers in place or any in-depth briefing. It was at best a pleasant and useful getting-acquainted exercise.

The Council of Ministers has the virtue of being small (45) but there will soon be some expansion in order to ensure political and regional balance. The consolidation of related ministries like transport and energy is welcome but may need further streamlining. Collective cabinet responsibility and accountability have been restored by abolishing the plethora of GOMs and EGOMs that the UPA recklessly set up.

Information & Broadcasting has strangely been mated with the Environment. Both need reform, the first by being abolished, with its component units like Prasar Bharati, the Films Division and DAVP being granted autonomy; and the other by avoiding an excessively rigid touch-me-not approach to nature, something that misreads the progress of civilisation. The environment must of course be protected but the watchword must be dynamic balance. Poverty is the worst pollutant and to get rid of poverty (and avoid social instability) we need infrastructure, skill improvement and jobs. The new Environment Minister has promised to fast track Rs 80,000 core of stalled projects, which if sensibly done will give a great stimulus to investment and growth.

Mr Modi has been right to call for openness in government and to urge ministers and officials to twitter and keep in touch with the public. The social media and responsive government are each important in their own way but there is danger in encouraging a babel of individual voices, each claiming to represent some essential truth. The result can only be misunderstanding and incoherence and a departure from studied decision-making.

There is also need to be wary of too much centralisation of authority in the person of the Prime Minister and the PMO as appears to be Mr Modi’s inclination. India does not operate a presidential system and even an overdose of presidential style can lead to loss of ministerial initiative and a tendency to pass the buck.

Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the PMO was unwise to stir an avoidable controversy over Article 370. This fetched a tart reply from Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti that any such move could prove dangerous and controversial. The RSS immediately joined in to support abrogation, thrusting its view matters on the new dispensation. This is a danger signal and could suggest the Parivar’s desire to remote-control and micro-manage events from Nagpur.

BJP-RSS illiteracy on Article 370 is well known. The notion that this makes J&K a less integrated state than others is fallacious. Article 1 read with Schedule I Entry 15 and the J&K Constitution (which few know about or have bothered to read) make this absolutely clear. The argument that Article 370 has not benefited the people of J&K but has stalled their progress and welfare is bogus. The State has the best record of any in the matter of land reforms in abolishing landlordism, an evil that continues to enslave millions, especially in eastern and southern India.

Moreover, Article 370 is just among a whole family of provisions contained in Articles 371 and 371 A to Iand the Fifth and Sixth Schedules that provide for special dispensations for different classes of people and regions.

The BJP and RSS can equally do with a tutorial on a uniform civil code. This is a Directive Principle (Article 44) that calls on the State “to endeavour” to legislate a uniform civil code. Securing a UCC does not imply any compulsion to abrogate personal laws as tirelessly and mischievously argued byill-informed politicians, lawyers, editors and academics. Personal laws come under the rubric of “freedom of conscience and the free profession, practice and propagation of religion” guaranteed by Article 25 subject to “public order, morality and health” and other fundamental rights.

Any UCC will therefore necessarily be optional and, indeed, exists in part in the Special Marriage and Divorce Act 1954. But by a special amendment sponsored by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs marrying under the Special Marriage Act are to be governed by the Hindu Succession Act, a patent effort at communal appeasement.

The Special Marriage Act is a great boon and allows inter-faith, inter-caste and even inter–regional marriage without necessitating conversion by one or other spouse to the faith of the other. Moreover, few know that Goa is governed by a UCC, a legacy of Portuguese rule. Neither has been challenged for being ultra vires.

A UCC essentially provides for gender justice. All personal laws, without exception, are heavily biased against women in order to keep property within the family circle. Property, not faith, underpins personallaws. Empowering women by granting them one-third representation in Parliament is relative trivia compared to empowering 600 million Indian women through a UCCthat enables them to regulate their personal lives. Yet those who eloquently plead for women’s rights, including women, have ignorantly joined the vicious bandwagon illegally and gratuitously to crush women’s rights.This is one of the great inequities of modern India.

The truth is that the RSS-BJP believe that brandishing the prospect of a UCC is a whip with which to terrify Muslims in particular and get them to fall in line. The other popular notion that Hindu law has been unified is another piece of exalted rubbish. The Hindu Code Bill codified a considerable part of Hindu law but many other Hindu codes continue to exist in different parts of the country. Among the practices protected by Hindu law is the joint family, a property-oriented regime that has today become a major tax haven.

Finally, Entry 5 of the Concurrent List entitles any State to enact a UCC as marriage and divorce, adoption, wills, intestacy, succession, joint family and partition fall within its concurrent jurisdiction. Why then has no BJP-ruled State even lifted a finger to enact a UCC, as many states took the initiative to legislate freedom of information Acts. The new Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad on TV last week spoke of “unifying India’s oneness” and its unity in diversity through a UCC. Do it man; don’t dance around it as others have done for 50 years. India needs a Uniform Civil Code today. Without it, no Indian has the right by law to be an Indian in personal life. He or she must remain not even a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh Indian, but, ultimately, a denominational or sub-denominational one at that, down to the gotra by Khap law. What an unfolding of the inner hollowness and humbug of Indian secularism.

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