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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Debating UCC - From Nehruvian Secularism to Rajiv's Psuedo-Secularism

(Above) Untitled by M.F. Hussain.

Part II of a series of articles on the Uniform Civil Code. To Read Part I, click here.

The intention of the Congress leadership may have been good i.e. to avoid discomfiting the Muslims especially after the horrors of partition riots when their community was under siege from all quarters. However, the numerical logic of democracy converted this intention into Muslim appeasement and vote bank politics in no time and whose biggest victims, ironically, turned out to be Muslims themselves.

An increased liberty to marry and conduct their private affairs according to their scriptures tightened the hold of religion on the Muslim community. Nehru’s insistence that the community itself had to come up with reforms seemed to suggest that it was the ulema and not the parliament which had the power and the authority to make rules for the Muslims. The religious orthodoxy derived its legitimacy from this attitude of the state and began to consolidate power in its hands. Western education was frowned upon as it constituted a threat to their stature and leadership. Instead, young men were advised to take up religious education and become Maulavis (An example is the brilliant Dars system of education among Muslim communities in Kerala which despite its innovativeness, remained confined to religious education). Women were treated as second class citizens and were strongly advised to remain in the Burqa or the Niqaab. Divorce meant a life of penury and hardship as most of them were uneducated and could not find employment. In addition, the scriptures did not allow women to claim any lifelong maintenance from their husbands. Polygamy remained unabolished, further reducing their rights in the household.

It is not as if the Hindu shastras were charters of Women Empowerment. They too allowed Polygamy. Manusmriti, the ancient Indian text said to be authored by law-giver Manu, said that women should not be allowed any independence. However, the Hindu Code Bills put an end to all that and regulated the private affairs of Hindus according to Law. These bills took the power that was till now in the hands of the Hindu orthodoxy and vested it with the Supreme Court. The Jan Sangh, the ideological forefather of the Bhartiya Janata Party, was at the forefront of the protests against the Hindu Code Bills which were nevertheless passed and made into Law. The long reign of Congress as the ruling party ensured that an entire generation of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians practiced their religion but did not look up to the religious orthodoxy when a dispute arose regarding their private affairs. They approached the Supreme Court instead. This resulted in them believing in the rule of Law instead of the rule of scriptures and made them wary of the religiously orthodox.

In sharp contrast the consolidation of power in the hands of Muslim religious orthodoxy meant that Muslims became more insular and religious in their outlook and due to the rigid interpretation of their scriptures advanced by the orthodoxy, they were not able to keep up with the changing times. They were never able to produce an Ambedkar because to criticize Islam meant inviting a social boycott. The only way to criticize Islam and its customs then was by becoming a Maulavi in the first place!

Over time, instead of assimilating the best practices of other religions, the Muslim orthodoxy adopted their worst practices to further consolidate power in its hands and a system resembling the caste system came to be informally practiced in Islam too. No Islamic scripture speaks of any caste structure in Islam. Yet, in India today, Syed, Quereshi, Ansari, Pathan, Shah, Malik etc. are considered upper caste Muslims and Kunjra, Dhobhi, Halalkhor, Churihara etc. are considered backward caste Muslims. This has spawned a wave of identity politics within the Muslim community itself. In addition, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the non-governmental organization tasked with the protection of Muslim Personal Law in India and which comprises primarily of ulemas (religious scholars), has become a loudspeaker of the most retrograde thoughts from within the Islamic community.

A major fillip to this Muslim Religious orthodoxy was provided by the Rajiv Gandhi government when it buckled under their protests and enacted the misleadingly named Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. This act was enacted to reverse a Supreme Court judgement which granted Muslim women the right to alimony on divorce. The Muslim orthodoxy, patriarchal to the hilt, came out in full force against the judgement of the Supreme Court, citing Sharia and demanding that the government enact a legislation to reverse the judgement. Rajiv Gandhi had a crushing majority in the parliament and public support for his government was very high. He could have stood up to the Muslim orthodoxy and said that his grandfather did not envisage a secularism where Muslim women did not have rights enjoyed by women belonging to other religious communities. He could have said that he supported the Supreme Court judgement and would not buckle under the pressure of some religious chauvinists. He could have elevated his stature further and could have helped in reforming the patriarchal personal laws of Islam.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he chose to appease the Muslim minority under the assumption that the voice of a few Quran thumping Mullahs was representative of the views of the entire Muslim community. That is when L.K. Advani called the Rajiv Gandhi government “pseudo-secular” and brought that term in mainstream political discourse. The young Prime Minister had made the cardinal mistake of treating the Muslim community as a vote-bank, a mistake whose proportions would be magnified in the coming years by the governments that assumed office after him.

He compounded the mistake further by trying to appease Hindus. The Rajiv Gandhi government filed an appeal in the district court where the case regarding the Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Lord Ram) was going on and testified that opening the locks of the disputed structure would not affect law and order situation in the area. Inder Malhotra in his column for The Indian Express wrote that this was done on the advice of his cousin, Arun Nehru. The judiciary and the administration worked with alarming alacrity and the locks were open within an hour after the permission was granted. The result was a rush of Hindu worshippers in the disputed structure and the exacerbation of the fault lines between the Hindus and Muslims. This was precisely the moment when L.K. Advani decided to launch his pan-India Rath Yatra (Chariot Journey) to rouse Hindu consciousness.

An unwitting addition was made to these mistakes by Mr. Gandhi’s decision to produce TV serials on Ramayan and Mahabharat to instill moral values of Lord Ram and other Hindu deities in the people of the country. Prof. Arvind Rajagopal, Professor of Media Studies at NYU, wrote in The Indian Express: (
“No one predicted the response that the Ramayan generated. It should be remembered that it was the Congress that launched the serial, just as it was the Congress that launched the campaign to re-open the Babri Masjid. Arun Govil, who played Lord Ram in the serial, was brought out in full costume along with Deepika Chikhalia, who played Sita, to campaign for the Congress in a UP by-election, and Rajiv Gandhi offered Ram Rajya to voters as a campaign promise in 1989. Whatever gains accrued for the Congress from these moves, the net beneficiary was the BJP, who between 1984 and 1989 grew from two to 85 seats in the Lok Sabha, aided, of course, by its national campaign to wrest Ram Janmabhoomi away from the Muslims.

The Ramayan functioned not only as myth and as history. It also appeared to some as a manifesto to assuage the pride of Hindu civilisation and to ensure that Hindus were once again at the centre of the polity. This was, in fact, the declared aim of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Processions to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya were led by volunteers dressed to look like Ram and Lakshman in the tele-epic. Battle scenes from TV became models for Hindu militancy, and the serial itself began to echo themes from the campaign, with Ram saying prayers addressed to his “janmabhoomi,” represented by a lump of earth he carried with him in the forest.

Where reality ended and illusion began was hard to say. With the tele-epics, media and politics began to merge into each other. Illusion could be turned into reality for a while, if fortune was on your side. As LK Advani remarked in 1993, “For the purpose of securing the non-committed vote, you must, at least, create an illusion that you are likely to come to power.” Previously, the future had been the subject of state planning. In the 1990s, it turned into projections of market reforms, with televised Hindu dreaming alongside. Opinions may differ about where this has led us, but there should be little doubt about how we got here.”
I myself was born in the early 90’s and can testify to the effect even the repeat telecasts of these television serials had on me. In my village, 1 out of 10 houses had a television set and every Sunday, people would gather at the appointed hour to watch these serials in pin drop silence. Needless to say, people became more aware of the stories of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna. Their religious consciousness was roused and when Mr. Advani launched his Rath Yatra to channel this consciousness by invoking (legitimate) Hindu greivances, people wholeheartedly supported the cause.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during the election campaign in 1991. The BJP’s tally went from 2 MPs in 1984 to 85 MPs in 1989. Mr. Advani’s Rath Yatra culminated in the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. President Pranab Mukherjee, writing in his book The Turbulent Years 1980-1996, was measured in his criticism of Rajiv Gandhi when he said: "The opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple site on 1 February 1986 was perhaps another error of judgement. People felt these actions could have been avoided".