Uniform Civil Code: How secular are we?

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 10, 2016 11:11 hrs
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Over the last few months, there have been two big religious debates – one has to do with whether the Shar’ia Laws, particularly those to do with the triple talaq and polygamy, ought to be allowed to overpower the legal rights of a citizen of India; another has to do with whether the Jain practice of santhara ought to be considered suicide.

Organisations working for the rights of Muslim women have approached the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter of whether Islamic personal law can be allowed to encroach upon their rights. The Law Commission decided to get feedback on the Uniform Civil Code, while the government’s affidavit in the Supreme Court opposed ‘triple talaq’ as gender discriminatory. As various leaders use the issue to score political points, the apex court will make a pronouncement that could change the lives of millions of women in India.

Not so long ago, the Supreme Court stayed an order of the Rajasthan High Court, which had held that santhara – or the Jain practice of starvation unto death – was not an “essential religious practice” of Jainism, and that it ought to be punishable as suicide and abetment to suicide under the Indian Penal Code. This sparked off protests by Jains.

The issue that connects the two is this – India allows for each religion to have a set of personal laws.

In a country that deems itself secular, the question we have to address is this: does the ‘secular’ tag imply that each religion must be free to make its own laws, or does ‘secular’ mean that all citizens of the country will have equal rights, irrespective of the religion to which they belong?

This is particularly crucial in a context where someone’s life hangs in balance.

In September, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board was reported to have said in its reply to the Supreme Court that triple talaq was a better option than murdering one’s wife – which, if the reports are true, is what the Board believes husbands will be forced to do if they can’t get rid of their wives with six syllables uttered in quick succession.

Even in countries which follow Islamic law, the issue of triple talaq is a contentious one. There have been cases where wives have been divorced by text message. Scholars of Islam have often engaged in debate over the guidelines that govern the delivery of the three utterances of ‘talaq’. Women’s rights organizations in those countries have questioned the fact that women don’t have the same recourse to divorce.

Should a secular country permit it?

And if the secular country decides that it cannot be permitted, and that all citizens are subject to the laws laid down in the Indian Penal Code, there are two further questions – (a) What about other laws that have been enacted by governments in order to appease minorities (in the interest, perhaps, of creating vote banks), such as the bizarrely titled Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act (1986), which essentially made a mockery of the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case? (b) Is Islam the only religion whose governing body voices support for practices that would horrify most of us if they were to find place in a secular country’s laws?

In other words, in a secular country, can one’s religion reverse one’s culpability?

If Irom Sharmila Chanu can be considered a criminal for undertaking a fast-unto-death and force fed to prevent that death, can someone else be considered a martyr and demigod for abstaining from food and water? Can those elevating her to the status of a martyr and demigod by encouraging the fast be considered free of culpability because they belong to a religion which sanctions it?

A 13-year-old schoolgirl died in Hyderabad on October 9, after fasting for 68 days, following a Jain ritual. She was hailed as a ‘bal tapasvi’ by others of her community. She had previously survived a fast of 41 days. Her grandfather said people had flocked in to take selfies with the child when she as on a fast. Advertisements printed in newspapers for an event celebrating the completion of the fast announced Telangana minister Padma Rao Goud as the chief guest.

Is a girl of thirteen old enough to decide whether she wants to be a “bal tapasvi”? Even if the decision was hers, should the adults in her family have permitted it? Didn’t the unrelated people who knew she was destroying her health have a duty to report it to the police?

If the girl had belonged to any other religion, even if she had not been a minor, she would have been guilty under IPC section 309 (Attempted suicide) if she had survived the fast, and those who kept their peace would have been guilty under IPC section 306 (Abetment to suicide) when she died.

Can one’s religion convert to heroism what would otherwise be a crime?

No man is permitted polygamy without the consent of the first wife under Indian laws. No man is allowed to divorce his wife in three words under Indian laws. Yet, why are some men given a loophole by dint of belonging to a religion, under Indian laws?

When laws don’t apply equally to people of different religions, can we call ourselves a secular country?

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Read more at: http://www.sify.com/news/student-suicides-our-culture-of-expectation-is-to-blame-news-columns-qfclbTdhdabea.html
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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