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If You Take the Rights of a Hindu Woman for Granted, Think Again!

Many Hindu women take their rights against discrimination for granted; they should know the long fight for justice.

Updated
India
5 min read
If You Take the Rights of a Hindu Woman for Granted, Think Again!

The day of 7 October 2016 was crucial for Muslim women in India for two reasons. One, on that day, the Law Commission sought public opinion on the implementation of the controversial Uniform Civil Code; its questionnaire included one specific question about triple talaq – whether it should be abolished or retained. Two, on the same day, the Union government told the Supreme Court for the first time that it was against triple talaq, nikah halala and polygamy among Muslims.

The double whammy has upset a large section of Indian Muslims, who want to retain their Sharia-based personal laws and have been fiercely opposing Uniform Civil Code, which aims to make laws related to marriage, divorce, property, etc. in accordance with modern principles of gender justice.

The debate has pitted religious books against modern constitutional laws. Orthodox men against victimised women. This is exactly how it played out in case of Hindus too half a century ago. While we debate need of reforms in Muslim personal laws (with or without Uniform Civil Code), it is necessary to revisit how the Hindu society dealt with it. The story of making of Hindu personal laws is full of drama and politics as much as determination and perseverance.

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Hindu Women: Victimised for Centuries

Widows face social and financial hardships. (Photo: Reuters)
Widows face social and financial hardships. (Photo: Reuters)

The British chose to stay away as far as possible from contentious personal laws, which in India are largely entangled with religious beliefs. Sets of rules regarding marriages and inheritance among Hindus differed from region to region, caste to caste. The British would simply interpret the traditional rules. Divorce was prohibited, so there was no question of maintenance. Polygamy was allowed. Daughters would rarely get any property rights. Basically, as far as legal rights went, the condition of Hindu women was worse than Muslim women, who would at least get some maintenance after divorce.

In 1941, the British Raj finally realised the need for one personal law for Hindus as governing millions of people on the basis on hundreds of different of rules was chaotic. A committee chaired by Sir BN Rau toured the entire country to understand various customs regarding marriage and property distribution.

Hungama over Hindu Code Bill

In 1948, a Select Committee headed by then Law Minister BR Ambedkar picked up from where Sir Rau had left. It prepared a draft of the Hindu Code Bill, which suggested 5 fundamental transformations:

  1. Allow either partner to get divorce on the ground of cruelty, infidelity or incurable disease
  2. Allow women to seek maintenance after separation or divorce
  3. No second marriage allowed; polygamy to be abolished
  4. Widows and daughters to get same share in property as the male heirs
  5. Marriages in or between castes would have same legal status

Today, all the five suggestions look perfectly normal, but back in 1948, all hell broke loose! An “untouchable” trying to change the rules written by “great Brahmin sages” at one stroke was something completely unacceptable to a lot of Hindus. An All India Anti-Hindu Code Bill Committee was formed. It said that the Select Committee of the Constituent Assembly had no right to interfere in “divine” Hindu laws, which were based on holy books.

Hindu saints got united and called it a “dharmayudh”; Shankaracharya of Dwarka peeth joined this “war”. RSS backed all of them. A conservative section in Congress too was against these basic changes. President of Constituent Assembly Rajendra Prasad thought that Nehru and Ambedkar were in minority and that bringing such changes before the first general election would be “undemocratic.”

Protests, some of which turned violent, were staged under the leadership of Karpatriji Maharaj, who advocated that a man should get remarried if his first wife is “barren” or produced “only daughters”.

Between 1950 and 52, the Hindu Code Bill faced a lot of opposition inside the provisional Parliament. Nehru and Ambedkar were asked why Hindus were singled out. They were asked why polygamy was being allowed in Muslims, while it was sought to be abolished in Hindus. ‘Hindu religion is in danger’, cried some members. The bill finally lapsed.

In the first general election of 1952, Hindu Code Bill was an important issue. Nehru faced strong opposition in his home constituency of Allahabad, where the candidature of Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari of the Anti-Hindu Code Bill Committee was backed by Jana Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindutva parties.

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Victory After 10 Years!

Pandit Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Dr Ambedkar. (Photo courtesy: navayan.com)
Pandit Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Dr Ambedkar. (Photo courtesy: navayan.com)

Nehru won not only the Allahabad seat but also a comfortable majority in the Parliament. With a massive victory and Patel not around, Nehru became the undisputed leader of the party, government as well as the Parliament. The Anti-Hindu Code Bill Committee lost steam after losing the election.

Despite a comfortable majority, Nehru had to spend a lot of time and energy to convince his own party men of the need for these reforms. To ensure passage, the bill was broken into 4 pieces – marriage and divorce; adoption and maintenance; minority and guardianship; succession.

Some members argued that divorce was a Western concept and was based on carnal desires. Some members argued that women should not be given equal right in property as Hindu religious texts didn’t allow it. While right-wing parties thought the laws were too radical, left parties found them too mild to adequately give equal status to all women on all fronts.

Finally, by 1956, all four bills were passed after a fight of 10 long years! If not equal, Hindu women now had much more legal recourse against discrimination. The credit should go to Nehru for tirelessly following the bills and for risking his very standing in society. Dr Ambedkar, who was the architect of these bills, couldn’t complete the journey with Nehru due to political differences and health issues.

Along with the duo, even Hindu society deserves credit for allowing social reform movements and for silently voting for reforms during elections.

But the present NDA government will find it difficult to repeat what the Congress government did 50 years ago for two reasons. One, Nehru was after all a Hindu leader, so Hindus would listen to him; BJP does not have a progressive Muslim leader of that stature. Two, Indian Muslim society still lacks a major reforms movement. So, how and when Muslim women succeed in ridding their communities of triple talaq and polygamy is an open question.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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