On the threshold of 2018, The Wire revisits some uplifting moments from 2017. Here’s 2017: The Year in Hope.
It’s not every day that the chairman of the Law Commission receives a proposal from a team that includes a Carnatic vocalist, a retired Army officer, a champion of sanitation workers, two writers, a historian and a movie-star. On October 11, just such a group of citizens presented Justice B.S. Chauhan with a document that could change the national conversation about how we empower more Indians in their homes and communities: a Progressive Uniform Civil Code.
It is almost a political tradition in India that personal law is an exposed flank for secular parties, and the promise of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) a spear for the Sangh to drive into it every election season.
To the BJP, a UCC is an article of nationalist faith, yet in nearly four years the Narendra Modi government has not produced a credible draft of one. (Justice Chauhan, appointed in March 2016 and tasked with formulating a draft, has been quoted saying a UCC is ‘not even an option’.) That isn’t surprising. Like the temple in Ayodhya, a UCC is more useful in its absence than in its fulfilment – a pretext to denounce the Congress, scowl at Muslims and stoke resentment among Hindus about all the patriarchal privileges they may have been denied.
There is a famous bit of snark about Washington, DC, that it is a city of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency. Modi’s New Delhi is similar: its law-making combines UPA rigour with RSS sensitivity. The latest proof appeared in parliament on December 28, when the ruling party sneaked through a Bill to criminalise the utterance of the triple talaq – even though the words had lost any legal effect in August, after a Supreme Court judgement won by Shayara Bano.
The real surprise is how long defenders of secularism have waited, entangled in a confusion that belongs to the early days of the Republic, to make their own progress on giving common rights – to marry, to divorce, to adopt and to inherit – to Indians regardless of their religion at birth.
The model Progressive UCC presented to the Law Commission is not perfect, and there is no way it could be. There is no ideal text out there, waiting to materialise and to legislate every Indian’s rights within their families. A just system arrives in increments, and in personal law, the arc of improvement is especially long. The Hindu Succession Act was passed in 1956, and 50 years later the UPA was still making amendments to give daughters equal rights to inheritance.
All the more reason to get started. The Progressive UCC, drafted principally by the advocate Dushyant Arora, is a confident, clear-eyed effort to take on patriarchal law in general, rather than just mending the regressive ways of minorities. It opens with the statement that “the personal laws of all religions are beset with various inequities, especially in the context of gender,” and demands equal treatment for women in the Hindu majority as well (for example, by closing the glorified tax-loophole of the Hindu Undivided Family). It imagines a fairer society for all families, not just heterosexual ones.
Above all, it is a signal that liberal Indians cannot just play defence against the religious aggression of the Sangh. Even in 2017, they can press on towards their own ideals, shake the complacency of the opposition as well as the posturing of the ruling party and promise a society always moving towards equality – not just stalled where we were four years ago.
Featured image credit: Riccardo Romano/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0