A uniform personal family code for all Indians is needed
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come further than any of his predecessors in ameliorating the plight of one of the most vulnerable of India’s minorities: Muslim women.
Sure, he fell short when his Herculean effort to get the Muslim reform divorce bill through the Lok Sabha was not matched by the Rajya Sabha this session; but I suspect, given the party line numbers, it is a matter of time before India’s Muslim women have a modicum of legal protection from the horrid practice of triple talaq (thrice divorce).
The detractors of Modi accusing him of doing this to gain votes are not wrong; of course he is! I mean, that is what politicians in democratic electoral systems are supposed to do: Propose and implement policies that gain them more votes than their competitors.
What the heck was Congress (I) doing for 60 years when it repeatedly bottled up any reforms of the ancient Muslim family law code? I will tell you: It was creating its Muslim vote bank with the understanding that clerics will deliver it.
Well, it is the 21st century and India’s Muslim women have likely had enough of their all-male clergy telling them to live lives of meek second-class citizenship.
Independent India inherited an archaic mosaic of family law codes — covering marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and ancillary issues — that were made specifically for various religious communities.
India’s founding fathers, in their wisdom, promulgated in her constitution (Article 44) the stipulation that as a secular, pluralist, democratic republic, the country should have a uniform law dealing with these issues for all citizens.
To date, that part of the constitution has been ignored by every Indian federal government, largely as a sop to religious clerics who continue to have outsized sway over the lives of the vast majority of rural Indians of every faith tradition.
The government of Narendra Modi is, at least, challenging that noxious status quo which allocates rights and responsibilities and inheritances to Indians in the domestic sphere based on little more than the religion of their birth.
A country claiming to be a secular, pluralist, democratic republic with the rule of law as her cornerstone cannot continue a system where the law treats citizens differently, solely on the basis of how they worship. In respecting the Supreme Court verdict — unlike previous Congress governments — to start fixing these anomalies, the BJP government is striking a blow for the rule of law and human rights.
If India wishes to take her place in the select group of global democratic powers where the rule of law reigns supreme, this is but the first step
If India wishes to take her place in the select group of global democratic powers where the rule of law reigns supreme, this is but the first step.
The goal has to be what her noble first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned through Article 44 of her constitution: A country where the citizen approaching the court of law need not be judged on the manner of his or her worship, no matter what the issue.
That such a noble goal has remained unrealised 70 years into India’s independence is a matter of shame for her politicians in general, and, sadly, Pandit Nehru’s progeny in particular, whose fondness for identarian electoral politics has seen repeated Congress (I) governments work overtime to prevaricate on repeated Supreme Court directions to update personal status laws.
The harsh truth of the matter is that generally religion-based family law codes discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, or both. They are inherently prejudiced in fact and uneven in application, no matter how noble the intent.
They are also atrocious relics of a medieval mindset that assigns an individual his or her worth based on gender and religious identity. In a modern India, a noble India, an India worth its name as global democratic power, such an atrocity written on statutes should never be acceptable. Her founders thought so when they wrote her constitution; her leaders of today should meet that rendezvous with the destiny of modernity.
In pushing forth the legislation to outlaw the horrid practice of triple talaq, Mr Modi has taken a first step in the path charted out by the authors of her Constitution. But it is a first step; nothing will come of it — given the incredible opposition by the clerics — were the BJP government not to push through the legislation with the same grim determination in the Rajya Sabha where it still lacks a majority.
Ultimately, real victory can only come when the prime minister of India builds on this legislation and introduces uniform personal family code for all Indians in parliament, and parliament sends it to be signed by the president of India.
A great nation of democratic, pluralistic, and secular values must keep the promise made to herself in 1950, and deliver a family law code that treats every Indian as equal before the law of the land.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.