Millennium Post

Understanding Nehru’s vision of a just society

On the 125th birth anniversary of the first prime minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru have been kicked across the country and is celebrated as the Children’s Day. I have my differences with Pandit Nehru, as he was fondly called by the masses, but I want to express my gratitude for his conviction to the see the Hindu Code Bill through in Parliament.

But for his dedication the Hindu women would still be helpless without any legal resort. For those who are unaware I would like to refresh their memories. Only as recent as 60 years ago, the Hindu women did not have the right to divorce (Hindu Personal Law does not have a conception of divorce, you get married forever) or her husband can have as many marriages as he wants with Polygamy having the sanction of the ‘holy scriptures’.

It was the persistent efforts of PM Nehru that Hindu Marriage Act 1955 was passed granting the right to divorce to women, banning Polygamy and having provisions for inter-caste marriages was passed despite much opposition from the Hindu religious leaders, who saw it as an attack on the Hindu cultural freedom.

The Hindu Code Bill later paved way for granting women the share in the ancestral property and other such provisions which today we just take for granted. But what saddens me is that his vision of extending those rights to the Muslim women remains unfulfilled.

In 1955, Nehru said that the Muslim population, aggrieved from a brutal partition, was not mentally prepared for a Uniform Civil Code that will formulate socially acceptable codes for the purposes of marriages and successions. However, even as the UCC remains a name without a concept, its mere mention evokes a sense of hatred from the so called ‘custodians’ of the Muslim community.

I thought of doing a little survey of my own to find out the reasons driving the Muslim community’s opposition to the reformation in marriage laws. I spoke to many Muslim friends of mine who can be put in a highly educated class. Their main grievances ranged from that the reformation has to come from within the people, why you want to impose Hindu culture (read monogamy and easy divorce) on the Muslims; it will be an existential threat to Muslims and Hindus still have more polygamous marriages than Muslims.

The most hideous argument was that what if the wife was barren, at least second marriage should be allowed. The lone woman supporter of UCC among my friends said, ‘Given the fact that Muslim personal law has not been reformed since the early 20th century, I personally believe Uniform Civil Code is the right thing to have. The Muslim Personal Law Board of India supports archaic rules like unilateral divorce, Triple Talaq which are not even applicable today in Islamic countries.’ It is to dispel the various notions that made writing of this article imperative. First of all the provisions of UCC are still debatable and a consensus needs to be made on them according to the prevalent social value that the country as a whole wants to promote. Stress on monogamy and granting equal rights to women in matters of matrimony and divorce are certainly not Hindu values or traditions, rather they are the modern values that a society based on the premises of equality of man and woman has to promote.

 Family is a social institution backed by legal authority; it provides the nurturing ground for future citizens of the society. So it is in the interest of the State to intervene if the prevalent family values are promoting inequality and subordination instead of basic principles of justice. It was this logic that justified banning of ‘sati pratha’ (where women burned themselves alive at the husband’s pyre) and sanctioning of widows remarriage.

The practice of instant verbal divorce by man with merely uttering ‘Talaq’ (divorce) three times is cruel and places women at an awfully unequal footing vis-à-vis man. It has been banned in several Islamic countries such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and Sudan; and even in Pakistan and Bangladesh. India, which grants the freedom to profess any religion to individuals and not to communities, is yet to stand up to the stiff opposition from the self-professed leaders of the community.

Polygamy in a highly patriarchal society of India often reduces the status of the women as one of producing a male heir to the family. Muslim leaders have contended that a ban on polygamy has not weeded out the practice from the Hindu society so it is not required for the Muslim community.

It is like arguing that a law against murder is not required because the crime has not stopped. Laws pertaining to social institutions are required to give a nudge to the society in the required direction.
The third issue is that of alimony. The denial of post-divorce alimony to a large section of Indian women in the name of religion is the violation of their fundamental right of equality. India had the chance to rectify this, but how Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi floundered this opportunity in 1984 Shah Bano case is well known.

The question now is which government would dare to put its hand in the hornet’s nest and implement the ambit of the Nehru’s vision to the whole country.

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