Men, being ever a social animal, have always fallen for women. But sometimes, for more than one. Mohd. Ahmed Khan, husband of Shah Bano, fell similarly, divorced her, and married another Muslim woman as allowed under the Sharia law. Sharia, the Muslim Personal Law, stated that he was no longer responsible for her maintenance.
Our dear (and very popular, henceforth) Shah Bano registered a case against him. In its landmark judgment in 1985(landmark is the lingo for a badass Supreme Court judgement), the Supreme Court invoked Section 125 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) that applies to everyone regardless of caste, creed or religion and ruled that Ms. Bano be given maintenance money. It also suggested the center to reconsider the Uniform Civil Code.
Perceiving this judgment as an attack on their religious freedom, several sections of the Muslim community protested. The then Congress government, with its absolute majority, had to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, which diluted the judgment of the SC. As a result, even utterly destitute Muslim divorcees were denied the right of alimony from their former husbands.
The Uniform Civil Code seeks to replace the present laws related to marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, maintenance/alimony and custody of children. Presently, these laws are different for different religions– Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Parsi religions, meaning their religious boards have the liberty to legislate their own laws in the matters mentioned above.
You may say- ‘’Why is this change needed after all? Aren’t we a secular nation?’’
Well, you wouldn’t say that if you knew about a rather smart man- Meena Mathur’s husband. This man ingeniously converted to Islam just to marry a second woman against Meena’s wishes. Nice solution, eh?
Except, of course, the Supreme Court clipped his wings. In their judgement in the Sarla Mudgal, Meena Mathur & others. v. Union of India, the court reasoned that the first marriage must be dissolved under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 before converting to Islam. Until that is done, he will be governed by Hindu Civil Code that would not legitimize the second marriage and the Islamic law of polygamy can only be applied post conversion. There is also this hypothetical fear of the wife converting to Christianity, making divorce next to impossible.
There are many, many more cases. When a women in Haryana called her husband in Saudi Arabia and told her that she was raped by four men, she was devastated by this reply – ‘Talaq, Talaq, Talaq’. Then there is the Shah Bano case we talked about. In Hindus, the son and not the helpless widow gets the property if a man dies.
In the name of religious freedom and diversity, we have let our women- widows, divorcees, daughters- suffer. The patriarchy in our society seeps down in our personal laws too. It seems the religious law boards, who make our laws for us, never ask what women want and presume a lot.
There are other problems too- laws for Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs are mis-categorized under ‘Hindu Code Bill’ (remember how we mentioned only 4 religions in the beginning?) and atheists are forced to follow their officially documented religion’s (!) personal law. Tribes (like Baha’is) aren’t mentioned at all. Being ‘Personal’ Laws, these are subject to interpretations and vary with region and caste within the same religion. People often find the judiciary clinging to an interpretation different from theirs and get touchy about it. Ever gave a thought to the judiciary’s problems, eh?
By now you might blame me for being a religious fascist, an RSS agent or whatever- given how I’ve been repeatedly quoting incidents and laws mostly from the Muslim community. Some say the same for the central BJP government too. Is it agitating for UCC just in line with its Hindutva policy? Is this the right time to agitate for UCC, given the chances of communal clashes? How can the government go against so many religions at once? Does the judiciary has the right to go against religion? What about Article 26? What about Secularism and Religious Freedom?
“HOW DARE YOU TRY TO HARM OUR GOD?!”
Okay, okay, slow down captain. This might answer some questions:
“I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction, so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field. After all, what are we having this liberty (religion) for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”
I didn’t say that (wish I did). Dr B.R. Ambedkar said that. And maybe he was right. Maybe individual rights and dignity stand taller than religious agendas. Maybe that’s why the Mumbai High Court allowed women entry in the Haji Ali Dargah. Maybe that’s what gave us teeth to reform the Hindu laws in 1955-56 and form the Hindu Civil Code. Maybe that’s why Goa has the Goa Civil Code that applies to all citizens irrespective of their religion (surprised?).
It was the British who introduced the system of Personal Laws to avoid clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The constitution’s founding fathers wanted the Uniform Civil Code in the constitution. But the time was not right then. So we got Uniform Civil Code in the Directive Principles of State Policy instead. We can’t keep waiting for the right time, because every day UCC is not implemented, someone is being wronged, and that should be reason enough. And we are not even talking about whether the personal laws are acceptable to the state or not. These laws are not acceptable to our own women, our own people!
Is religion that important?