The current debate on the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is meaningless. Without a draft of the law that we are supposedly debating, these interventions are largely about a various set of people sounding self-important. It becomes more problematic when the issue seems to have been oversimplified between the (unclear terms of the) UCC and Muslim personal law – giving the impression that it is Muslims and Muslims alone who are the roadblock to gender justice in India. As those familiar with the way that gender justice has been implemented in personal law in India have shown, the judiciary has been slowly and steadily pushing forward the bounds of gender justice in all cases of personal law across communities.
That being said, it is incredibly distressing that few, if any, Indian Muslim leaders have said, bluntly, that they support gender-just laws – whether within the ambit of personal law or within a potential UCC. Let us be blunt. Issues such as triple talaq, differential inheritance, and second (third, or fourth) marriages without the consent of the first wife are issues of justice. They are patriarchal issues – just as the tax breaks and first son preference for Hindu Undivided Family are. Because this is the default framework, Indian Muslim women are born into positions of inequality (as are their sisters from other communities, in different ways). For any Indian, especially for an Indian Muslim man, this should be a source of shame and an impetus towards changing these laws.
Ignoring these inequalities, a number of Muslim leaders have instead tried to focus on “greater injustices”, such as the murder of Akhlaq, and the honours heaped upon his alleged murderer or the apparent custodial killing of Minhaj Ansari. These cases highlight the differential treatment of Muslims by the state – especially when organisations like the MNS can hold the movie industry hostage, with the state acting as facilitator, and the RSS can threaten the state itself in Madhya Pradesh. Given the treatment of Indian Muslims as second class citizens, Muslim leaders ask, why is there a focus on “marginal” issues?
This approach is fundamentally flawed for two interrelated reasons. The first, and most important, reason is that Indian Muslim women themselves are speaking up about the injustices inherent in Muslim personal law. When members of the Indian Muslim community are asking for justice, it is unconscionable for the leadership to dismiss these calls for justice as misplaced, “less important”, or – the worst accusation – lackeys of the RSS. Such an approach aligns the Indian Muslim leadership against justice for members of their own community. If the Muslim leadership is not working for justice for its own community, of what use is it?
The second reason this approach is counterproductive is that Indian Muslims are a small part of the larger Indian state – in which many communities are fighting for justice and against historical inequities. If Indian Muslims wish for partnership and support from other communities they must take a side – either for justice or against it. You cannot continue to support gender unjust laws and expect support for justice on other issues on a sustained basis. Many Indians fighting for justice – Muslim or not – were appalled at the murder of Akhlaq and the celebration of his murderers. And yet when they see the Indian Muslim leadership unwilling to even acknowledge that there are problems within Muslim personal law, those fighting for justice do not see the Indian leadership as partners in the fight for justice.
For a long time, this failure has been covered up by the courage and activism of Indian Muslim women, and because they are the most affected it is both right and necessary that they be at the forefront of such discussions. But there is a large role for Indian Muslim men to voice support for them, and it is here that we see the only failure. This must change.