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Home > 2023 > UCC: BJP’s new campaign mantra for 2024 | Faraz Ahmad

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 27 , July 1, 2023

UCC: BJP’s new campaign mantra for 2024 | Faraz Ahmad

Saturday 1 July 2023, by Faraz Ahmad


The Bharatiya Janata Paty (BJP rose from the ashes, phoenix like, in the late 1980s under the leadership of L.K. Advani with a three-point agenda which immediately struck a chord with a large section of Hindu voter in India: the claim over Babri Masjid; abolition of Article 370 granting special status to the only Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

If we go back in history the trigger was in fact the Shah Bano case judgment of April, 1985 pronounced by a bench led by the then Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud, granting Shah Bano a divorcee, the right to maintenance by her husband, in perpetuity. In effect the Supreme Court only confirmed what the Madhya Pradesh High Court and before that a lower court had already ordered, which her former husband Mohammad Ahmad Khan challenged in higher courts.

Initially Rajiv Gandhi found the judgment very progressive and asked his then young minister Arif Mohammad Khan, himself a law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and well versed in Muslim theology to defend the judgement, which Arif did very well, gaining widespread support and recognition for the remarkable speech he made in Parliament on the issue. But within no time Rajiv, not too savvy in realpolitik, came under pressure of the conservative status quoist Muslim clergy, threatening to launch agitation, to reverse his views vis-à-vis Muslim women’s protection and he brought in the regressive Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 overturning the judgement. That became a turning point in Rajiv’s political career. Since 1984 when he became the Prime Minister following the assassination of his mother, Rajiv had become the cynosure of every eye, more so of the right-wing RSS/BJP.

Today the Sanghis, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his fan club and troll army never cease to remind even Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who are in no way to blame for that pogrom, of Sikh massacre in the aftermath of Indira’s assassination on October 31, 1984. Whatever be the formal stand of the BJP but informally the RSS cadres were working closely with those targeting the Sikhs according to most eye witnesses. Then on November 8, 1984, former BJP top leader Nanaji Deshmukh wrote a detailed note justifying the Sikh massacre as a tit for tat. Indian Express proprieter Ramnath Goenka and Nanaji were bosom pals. Despite the Sikh massacre Goenka was so enamoured of Rajiv that he wrote how he could die in peace, now that the country is in the hands of an able and competent leader.

But all the praise for Rajiv Gandhi vanished into thin air the moment he steered the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. Their real grouse was not so much about how unjust and unfair this act was to Muslim women. Instead, their reasons were that the Muslim men were now in more advantageous position vis-à-vis the women in matters of divorce in comparison to the Hindu men. That rankled them much more and it immediately struck a chord with the upwardly mobile Hindu middle class, providing instantaneous mass support to the BJP. This is worth recalling to remind why and how the BJP touted three major issues in its campaign, namely claims upon Babri Masjid, Uniform Civil Code and removal of the special status of the only Muslim majority state in India J&K by virtue of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution.

Since Narendra Modi would be 75 years old in 2024 when India elects the 18th Lok Sabha, going by his rule of age criterion for retiring to the Marg Darshak Mandal he too ought to hand over the baton to someone younger like the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. But the lust for power does not go easily. Being a very shrewd politician he had calculated soon after his re-election as the Prime Minister in 2019 that he does not have much time left with him. And if he wanted to seek a third term in 2024, he needed to do something spectacular. He has taken credit for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on the ruins of the demolished Babri Masjid. With one stroke of pen, he not only scrapped Article 370 and 35A withdrawing special status of Kashmir valley, but even demoted J&K to a Union territory to be governed directly by the Central government through their nominated Governor. That left only one task to achieve immortality or rather reserve the seat of the Prime Minister for lifetime as long as the BJP managed to remain in power, and that is UCC.

Hindu-Muslim polarisation is the Brahma Astra of the BJP. It has brought the BJP this far from a party of just two MPs in the 8th Lok Sabha to ruling the country for last nine years on its overwhelming strength of 303 members in the 17th Lok Sabha. But the ucccharan (pronunciation) of this mantra has to be different each time to impress upon the uninitiated that this is a new mantra. So, the Prime Minister in BJP’s booth managers’ meeting in Bhopal on June 28, threw the UCC gauntlet to the Opposition parties. Delhi chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal immediately took the bait, saying he was for the UCC but not this way. Others have maintained a studied silence so far. But in the run up to the 2024 polls Modi will keep embarrassing Opposition leaders on this. It is ironical for Modi to talk about abandonment of women after marriage. Apparently only the abandonment of Muslim women bothers him. He mentioned in Bhopal how several Muslim countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Indonesia have banned this archaic practice. Modi’s formal spouse Jasodaben whom he abandoned within two years of marriage and acknowledged his marriage to her only at age 65 when he filed his nomination papers for contesting the Lok Sabha in the 2014 general elections, for fear of someone challenging his election for giving false information. Jasodaben though, remains forlorn and abandoned to date.

Fact of the matter is that when Parliament passed the controversial Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, the first protest against this came from the Left and justifiably so. I recall Shabnam Hashmi and other Left leaning women leaders mobilised Muslim women, not in very large numbers to raise their voice and hold demonstrations opposing the proposed legislation. But all that is long forgotten in the BJP cacophony for UCC.

To keep the focus on the UCC, this Government constituted the 22nd Law Commission. Soon after his appointment as the Chairman of the 22nd Law Commission, Justice Rituraj Awasthi’s political sympathies became apparent when he recommended the retention of the outdated British Sedition law, which the Supreme Court had recommended to strike down. Instead, Justice Ritu Raj recommended making it more stringent. He has sought views from various shades of opinion, in order to formulate his recommendations on the contentious issue of UCC, which ought to be coming well in advance of the 2024 general elections, if BJP intends to make any political capital out of it and if Modi endeavours to became ‘Amar’ in the eyes of all Sanghis.

However, if we go by consultation paper issued by the 21st Law Commission chairman former Supreme Court judge Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan in 2018, it threw cold water on Modi’s plans. The Commission sought to clear many a cobwebs around UCC dream of the Sanghis. According to Women Rights activist Flavia Agnes, “those who were under the misconception that a UCC must be enforced to ‘teach Muslims a lesson’ were in for a rude shock as the Law Commission refrained from making any recommendations on triple talaq, Muslim bigamy or the constitutional validity of adultery under Section 497 of the IPC since these issues were before either before the Supreme Court or Parliament. The most significant recommendations of the 21st Law Commission were about the economic rights of women,” Agnes wrote.

“The Commission made an interesting comment about Muslim polygamy: ‘Although polygamy is permitted within Islam, it is a rare practice among Indian Muslims. On the other hand, it is frequently misused by persons of other religions who convert as Muslims solely to solemnise another marriage.’ A glaring instance of such a marriage is film actor and former MP Dharmendra and current bJP MP Hema Malini.

Also while this may not have been commented upon by the 21st Law Commission, there is a practice of ‘Maitri Karar’ (temporary marriage) outside the wedlock among sections of Hindu Gujaratis. That is akin to the ‘Mutah’ (time bound marriage) a practise now abandoned by Shia Muslim community, even in Shia majority countries like Iran.

The reason perhaps why this Government quietly shelved the recommendations of the 21st Law Commission and chose now to set up the 22nd Law Commission were the remarks about Hindu coparcenary system—the (HUF nee Hindu Undivided Family) property in the 21st Law Commission recommendations. “It recommended the abolition of Hindu coparcenary system, wrote Agnes quoting from the report that ‘It is high time it is understood that justifying this institution on the ground of deep-rooted sentiments at the cost of the country’s revenues may not be judicious’ considering it as a practice of wilful tax evasion.”

That apart, the problem with the UCC is that bringing in a Uniform Civil Code, which will be enforced on four specific areas, vis marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance, could cause quite a stir among several tribal and other communities, none being Muslims. For instance, many tribals practice Gandharva vivah and some in the forest areas also practice Ghotul (elopement) and similar traditions. It is doubtful if those communities marked as Hindus would meekly submit to this new UCC? Nevertheless, Modi and the BJP shall make it the subject matter of their shrill campaign, all the same.

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