Attempts by the BJP government at the Centre to impose a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) at this juncture can only be seen as a political ploy. Perhaps the BJP is testing the waters to check if Hindus who are largely its vote bank will take this bait. This presupposes that Muslims and other minority religious groups will oppose the UCC and that the electorate will be sharply polarised.
It is easy to make people believe that certain sections of people in India claim special rights by virtue of being minorities either because they follow a particular religion or by virtue of their being tribal and backward because they were deprived of facilities that have been enjoyed by the majority community.
Each time the UCC is raked up it is Muslim women who show preference for this aspirational section of the Constitution.
The term, ‘Uniform Civil Code’ is explicitly mentioned in Part 4, Article 44 of the Indian Constitution which says, “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”
The framers of the Constitution debated this Article at length and amidst points and counterpoints it was placed as a Directive Principle (which is not justiciable and at best an aspiration).
India is too diverse a country to even attempt a single code of civil conduct. In fact, India defies the very notion of a “nation-state.” A nation is often defined as a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, and language, and inhabiting a particular country or territory.
A Direct Contravention of Biblical Tenets?
To the discerning eye, India is several nations, races, cultures, and languages. The link language across the nation is English. Hindi is spoken only in Northern and Western India. It would be impossible to transact in Hindi in South India and in the Northeast. Our cultures are distinct and so are our food habits. The very fact that beef is sacred to some and food to others is in itself a huge dividing factor. As long as food habits are not tinkered with and people are left to follow their cultural cuisine they may be amenable to parts of the Constitution being tweaked such as in turning a directive principle into a right and a law.
But as of now when people are already so apprehensive about the intrusion into their religious and cultural rights the UCC may be met with resistance.
Coming to India’s Northeast, more specifically, there are tribals occupying large tracts of the state in Assam and Tripura where the 6th Schedule of the Constitution is operative. The very purpose of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution is to protect and promote the tribal customs and usages in terms of marriage and divorce amongst others; as there are myriad cultural expressions and languages.
India’s Northeast is populated by Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic tribes that bear more resemblance to the tribes of South East Asia. They have held fast to their languages and their ancestral, indigenous knowledge systems, including their healing practices which are often disdainfully proclaimed as “quackery.”
It so happens that large sections of the tribes are Christians, having been converted by the British Missionaries at the behest of the colonial rulers who entered this region after 1826. While Meghalaya still has about 8-10 percent of tribals practising the indigenous faith and they too have their own set of rituals, Christianity has a set of defined principles governing marriage and divorce.
How does the UCC play out if not in direct contravention of the Biblical tenets? No wonder that in Nagaland, a state ruled by a government in alliance with the BJP, the church, and other civil societies have already publicly declared that they will not accept the UCC.
Will the BJP-RSS Outreach Work?
In the recent past, the RSS, the outreach wing of the BJP has been working silently among the non-Christian tribes in states like Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur and telling them that their beliefs are part of the larger Hindu faith and way of life and that they should therefore consider themselves ‘Hindus.’
Attempts have been and are still being made by the RSS to recruit young people from poor families in villages that still follow the indigenous faith and to educate them in Karnataka, Maharashtra, et al.
The question to ask the BJP is whether the UCC will do away with the caste system and treat the Dalits as equals. Can that ever happen in a country marked by outrageous caste discrimination even now in the 21st century when India claims to be a world power and the Prime Minister travels to different countries of the world ostensibly as a peace emissary?
In fact, the question that should have been asked by the US media other than the cliched one about the diminishing tenets of democracy is why there still exists in this country a group of people who by virtue of their births remain the outcasts of Hindu society. It might have taken the PM some time to answer that. But perhaps people in the rest of the world too have internalised the fact that Dalits ought to be treated as lesser humans.
The fact that Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma who leads the National Peoples’ Party (NPP) and is a close ally of the BJP has publicly declared that Meghalaya will not go with the UCC should make the position of Meghalaya clear enough. Sangma knows that there would be huge reprisals from the people of Meghalaya if he is seen to toe the BJP line and that could lead to instability of his government here.
So far, the tribals of Assam have not made their positions clear. Assam is a BJP-ruled state with a Chief Minister who is no less than a bulldozer of ideas. It remains to be seen how Himanta Biswa Sarma convinces the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, and the other tribes to accept the UCC unquestioningly.
Tripura is also a BJP-ruled state with a majority non-tribal, Hindu population so that state might have to toe the line of the BJP High Command. What will be interesting to watch is the reaction of the newbie tribal political party – Tipra Motha’s reaction to the UCC.
(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached at @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)