It's unfortunate, that most visible of the debates in Indian socio-political domain are centered around religion. Consider the BJP: the party with a difference, had three main issues on which it established its identity -- Uniform Civil Code (UCC), Ram Janma Bhumi (RJB) and Article 370. The first two invariably end up in the religious domain, as the nature of conflict is religious, and not social. And, if you look at the public discourse, these two issues hog the limelight; whereas Article 370 is more or less abandoned. Another issue that keeps appearing in the public discourse is that of religious conversions; again, an overtly religious issue.
India is -- supposedly -- a secular democracy. According to Merriam-Webster online, secularism is "indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations". So how does a secular country solve essentially religious conflicts? And more importantly, how secular are the self-proclaimed secular parties?
I am also a self-proclaimed secularist (following the above definition). But I don't necessarily align myself with the secularists of India on every issue. Neither do I sympathize with many (most?) positions taken by the Sangh Parivar. [Note: I use terms like secularists, parivaris, etc. not as means to deride anyone, but because they are easily identifiable tags.] In a sense, I'm sitting on a fence, with people on both sides claiming to speak for me, and indeed pushing me into opposite camps, as and when needed. And I'm sure, I'm not alone, there are many who would empathize with positions in both camps, on a case by case basis. Problem is that the fence-sitters (I won't use liberal/conservative tags here, because they just obfuscate the issues further) are not heard enough, except in the comments sections or in newsgroups, where they are rarely heard in the cacophony! I want to address all those fence sitters, above all. It's time we need to speak up -- for whatever it's worth.
Faith Vs. Law: Convenient Posturing
All the major religious groups and indeed political parties are guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to one of the three issues listed above. Consider this:
UCC and Freedom of Religion
Supreme Court's observations on UCC is going to trigger the UCC debate again. How is our polity divided over UCC? It is ironical, that the so called fundamentalists want Uniform Civil Code in India, whereas the secularists want to protect religious laws. Even assuming, that the whole intention behind BJP's demand for UCC is political, by no stretch of logic, can they be accused of being fundamentalists here.
For a contrast, see the reactions of the Muslim bodies like AIMPLB:
"Sharia (Islamic law) is an integral part of Islam. Implementation of Uniform Civil Code would mean depriving Muslims and many communities from their personal laws and fundamental right to religion." (S Q R Ilyas of the AIMPLB, told rediff.com)
And what about reforms, in those personal laws?
"Sharia is a law made by God. It is not made by any human being. Therefore nobody has the right to intervene into it. Not even Muslim.... Islamic scholars or Ulemas can take a position on issues where the holy Koran and Sunna (Prophet's sayings) are silent."
If this (literal interpretation of a holy book, as immutable word of god) is not fundamentalism, what is? And why don't secular parties criticize/contest this? Look at the pleasure they take in ridiculing some local VHP fanatic when he says "cow is our mother". Why then a kid-glove treatment to these fanatics?
I'm not questioning the insecurities of minorities, regarding UCC. For example, if they're worried that UCC might turn out to be just Hindu Personal Law repackaged, I can understand. That is a genuine worry, that has to be addressed. But there is also a need to unequivocally scrap fundamentalist positions like the one taken by AIMPLB. It is curious that the Board chooses not to talk about the complexities of implementation, or insecurities of his people, but rather questions the very basis of UCC, on overtly religious grounds. Any secular person must condemn such fundamentalism, from whichever quarter it comes.
Why? Because such extreme fundamentalist positions exclude any chances of a solution, or even a dialog. It's time the secular parties restart the debate on UCC, moving from if to how. Yes, there are tremendous complexities, but before we address them, we have to accept the constitutional obligation. And we have to also consider, that we haven't moved at all for fifty years now. Really, it's time.
UCC: Evolving the Consensus
Over the years, many secularists have argued that UCC should not be forced on any community, and that we should wait for consensus to evolve. On the face of it, it seems like a very reasonable stand, as forced laws are after-all not very effective. But still reforms have to be accelerated with laws, at times. Consider the case of the anti-sati ordinance, or anti-dowry laws. These are laws that are forced on the majority community for the greater common good. Should we abolish them, and wait for dowry to go away on its own, through social change?
The reality is: religious freedom is being misused by more powerful (for example, some Muslim men) among the minorities, against the less powerful (for example, Muslim women). Why would these more powerful segments voluntarily give away the privileges that personal laws grant them? This is an obvious chicken-egg problem.
Archaic laws from personal laws for every community, that are used by a section of the community against the less privileged members, typically women, have to go. And UCC does address some of these issues.
Most Muslim bodies when it comes to UCC (and Christian bodies, when it comes to conversion, and the Hindu right-wing when it comes to cow slaughter), raise the religious rights bogey. But religious rights in a secular state have to be secondary to citizens' rights. For example, if the state guarantees gender equality, the inheritance laws must not differentiate on the basic of gender, period. A state cannot claim to be secular, if religious freedom compromises citizens' rights.
Some people have also argued about voluntary UCC. Even this on the face reasonable solution has a major flaw. The segments which need protection from hostile personal laws are typically not free to choose. It's like saying, that girls parents can refuse to give dowry, so we don't need anti-dowry laws.
Liberalism and Fundamentalism
Finally, the most philosophical aspect of the UCC debate: how much of fundamentalism should liberalism tolerate? Should a liberal state say - fundamentalists have a right to live as islands inside the state, with laws suiting themselves? For example, if AIMPLB wants sharia, even for criminals, would the state relent? And if not, why stop at that? Why not get rid of other outdated personal laws? Laws that cut at the very fabric of a civil society like triple talaq?
I'm not saying that only Muslim bodies have problems with UCC; or, only Muslim personal laws need reforms. I'm using these examples because only prominent religious bodies crying foul over this issue happen to be Muslim bodies. And let's face it, the reluctance of Congress and Left regarding UCC stems from their minority vote banks - rather, the Muslim vote banks. Congress and the Left cannot have their cake and eat it too. It's time they prove their secular credentials; just calling BJP communal is not a proof enough for us fence-sitters. It's time, the secular intellectuals stop hiding behind pragmatic arguments, never taking a firm stand on the principled aspects of UCC. The easy alternative is: stop calling yourself secular.