7 September 2015

Sunanda K Datta-Ray: A common civil code

September 4, 2015

Democratic integration demands that a single law apply to all

It’s seldom that I find myself sympathising with Sangh Parivar bigots, who are suspected of complicity in the murder of the Kannada scholar Malleshappa Madivallapa Kalburgi and whose growing influence in Delhi explains stupidities like renaming Aurangzeb Road. But I must confess to reading what Mohammad Hamid Ansari reportedly told the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat recently with some misgiving.

I don’t for a moment think it was at all improper for the vice-president to speak on an issue concerning 14.2 per cent of the population. We know it worried Manmohan Singh, who was anxious to do something for the betterment of Muslims after the Sachar Committee disclosed its findings on their “social, economic and educational status”. But someone who has spent a lifetime in the bureaucracy should know better than others that the “serious bottlenecks” in implementing the Sachar recommendations he also mentioned are inherent in official India and can’t be attributed to malign intention.

What was most worrying were Ansari’s emotive language, invidious comparisons and absence of any awareness (or admission) that Muslims might themselves be partly responsible for some of the problems relating to “identity and security, education and empowerment, equitable share in the largesse of the state and fair share in decision-making” that they apparently face. I am reminded of a seminar where I mentioned Christian Sunday school when the question of religious instruction for children came up. All the maulvis present protested. Religion couldn’t be a weekend affair for Muslims, they said. A Muslim has to wake up every day with Allah’s name on his lips and go to bed with the same sound in his ears. If so, he must opt out of mainstream education and be handicapped for life.

Similar intransigence compelled Singapore eventually to make school-going compulsory so that Muslims didn’t lag behind others. Lee Kuan Yew refused to do that between 1965 and 2003. His logic that schools that are easily accessible and affordable for all in a society where success demands education paid off handsomely, resulting in 96 per cent literacy. But with Islamic fundamentalism rising worldwide, Malay Singaporeans, comprising nearly 14 per cent of the population, began dropping out of school and going to madrasas instead. Despite its conviction that reason and intellect are the best drivers of reform, Singapore had to resort to compulsion. Such legislation in India (even if we could implement it) would provoke furious charges of riding roughshod over minority rights and tampering with religious freedom. It’s a no-win situation.

Some Muslims criticise the recently revealed 2011 Census data on religion predicting that in 2050, India will have 311 million Muslims or 11 per cent of the global total, the largest Muslim population in the world. Since the figures are not questioned, I want to know from someone authoritative like the vice-president whether this was planned. My sister, a qualified gynaecologist, who used to head the Red Cross in Hyderabad, told me several decades ago of Muslim women in bustees and villages rejecting her family planning campaign with the blunt retort that she should address only the more numerous Hindu community until the two groups had reached numerical parity. Perhaps illegal immigration from Bangladesh helps!

The identity problem Ansari speaks of recalls the lament by the pre-Partition Muslim League’s Mian Mumtaz Daultana of “an ambiguous situation because for 700 years the Muslims ruled, and so a Muslim in India did not really quite know whether he was basically a Muslim or an Indian”. I am sure wise Muslims, like Ansari himself, long ago got over such complexes. But some Hindus may not have. That is why it is especially unfortunate that an enlightened veteran of Ansari’s erudition and experience should provide them with ammunition. India’s second-highest officer of state is expected to examine and analyse social dynamics, not respond to challenges with only a sectarian perception, or with recipes for further fragmenting an already divided nation.

This will become inevitable if his mention of “corrective strategies” leads to yet another reserved quota. With Jat restiveness following hard on the heels of the Patel upsurge, one recalls certain Karnataka Brahmins seeking Other Backward Class status from B P Mandal. India is a land of minorities. It needs a unifying label that forces Bengalis, Christians, Mizos, Kashmiris and others to think of themselves as Indians first. The ideal would be — dare one say it? — a common civil code to which Hindus and Muslims can subscribe. Democratic integration demands that a single law — the law of the land — apply to all. 

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