16. Things to do for the BJP

 

         The cleverness of the BJP is in evidence again in its choice to put the enactment of a Common Civil Code on India's political agenda.  In India, marriage, divorce and inheritance are regulated by religion-based law codes which are different for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis.  Thus, a Hindu who wants to marry two women, knows that he will be punishable, but no longer if he converts to Islam (which is why there are actual cases of conversion for the sake of bigamy).  For Christian men and women, divorce laws are equal but make it very difficult to obtain a divorce.  For Hindus, it is a bit easier, but divorce is the easiest by far for Muslim men, who only have to pronounce triple talaq; Muslim women, by contrast, have to plead their case before a judge.  This totally non-secular arrangement was meant to be only temporary, for the Constitution stipulates in its directive principles (Art. 44) that the State shall endeavour to enact a Common Civil Code.  In 1995, the Supreme Court reminded the Government of this directive principle, and directed it to report on the progress made in the matter.  The BJP has replaced Ayodhya with the Common Civil Code as its central "communal" theme.

 

         The BJS-BJP has always demanded the implementation of Art.44, but the majority has blocked this secular policy time and again.  The cleverness about this Common Civil Code demand is that it can be used both as proof of the BJP's secularism and as proof of the BJP's Hindu credibility.  Many Hindutva-minded voters mistakenly believe that the Muslims' high birth rate is due to polygamy, and hope that a Common Civil Code will remedy this problem and thereby save the majority position and hence the survival of Hinduism in India.  Yet, in my opinion a realistic evaluation would be that this issue is of little importance to specific Hindu interests.  In a way, the Plural Civil Code is more in keeping with Hindu tradition, where every caste had its own distinctive marriage and inheritance customs.  The Common Civil Code is not a demand of Hindu society (certainly not a priority), but is intrinsically a demand of secularism. 

 

         There are excellent reasons for replacing the Muslim right to unilateral talaq with an egalitarian arrangement valid for all Indian citizens equally, but it is doubtful that this desirable goal will be reached by means of a BJP initiative.  The trouble of raising this impec­cably secular and explicitly constitutio­nal demand should be left to the secularists; as long as they don't put it on the agenda, the present religion-based personal law systems are a standing testimony to the hypocrisy of the secularist establishment.  Equality before the law regardless of religion is an essential requirement of a secular state, and it is a measure of the perversion of India's political parlance that BJP opponents actually defend the separate religion-based civil codes in the name of secularism.  But there is one serious problem with this demand: with extremely few exceptions, and with secularist support, the Muslim community opposes it tooth and nail. 

 

         In a futile bid to win the Muslims over, the BJP claims that there is nothing un-Islamic about abolishing the Sharia provisions on family matters, esp. by citing Muslim modernists like Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir as saying that the Sharia is obsolete, and by documenting how the Sharia was only imposed on the Indian Muslims late in the British period, in replacement of the customary laws which many Muslim communities had preserved since the time of their conversion.  Less than a century ago, the majority of the Indian Muslims did not follow the Sharia, true, but this only means that they were bad or incomplete Muslims, not that Islam doesn't care about which personal law system its faithful follow.  Muslim tyrants and propagandists who converted Hindus did "first things first": the converts had to be brought into the Muslim fold and develop an attachment to Mohammed and the Quran; whether they also adapted their marriage and inheritance customs to Islamic prescriptions (often a revolutionary change in their communal life) was a question that could be put off till a more convenient time.  While non-conformity with the Sharia can be tolerated as an intermediate stage in the islamization of a community, it is obvious that once the Sharia is established, it is un-Islamic to abolish it.

 

         While the BJP congratu­lates itself on being so clever in insisting on an impeccably secular demand like the Common Civil Code, it does not seem to be aware that, like with the Ayodhya campaign, it is merely banging its head against the wall and making itself despised and hated.  The most realistic prediction is that an effective abolition of the religion-based personal law systems by a future BJP government would provoke potentially violent agitations in every Muslim neighbourhood in India, as well as attacks on Indian and Hindu targets in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Great Britain and other countries.  After all, the Ayodhya dispute was a fairly artifici­al conflict, in which the common Muslim had no stake (it is a Hindu, not a Muslim sacred site, and no ordinary Muslim had any plans ever to visit Ayodhya), and still it provoked a major wave of violence; but a change in the rules for marriage, divorce and in­heritance affects every single Muslim personally. 

 

         A secular Common Civil Code would also diminish the power of Muslim clerics within their own community greatly.  If we remember that the Shah of Iran turned a simmering discontent into an armed revolution the day he hurt the material interests of the clerical class, we can imagine that in India too, the mullahs would organize a massive resistance against such an attack on their position.  The Hindus would again be blackened worldwide as mean oppressors of the poor hapless minorities, and the BJP's own government would find it hard to stay on course.  There are no indications that the BJP has a contingen­cy plan for such a nation-wide Muslim agitation.

 

         The BJP's focus on the sensitive Common Civil Code issue is all the more strange when we consider that there are other, far safer and far more consequential issues waiting to be raised, which have a potential for mobilizing the Hindus without automatically provoking the minorities.  When Sangh leaders are questioned on what grievances the Hindus could possibly have in a democratic state with a Hindu majority, they often mention Art.30 of the Constitution, which lays down that the minorities can set up government-sponsored denominational schools (implying the right to a communal bias in recruitment of teachers and students and a religion-centred curriculum).  When the Constitutional Assembly voted this article, many delegates probably assumed that the extension of the same rights to the Hindu majority was self-understood; but in practice, this right is denied to the Hindus.  This became hilari­ously clear in the 1980s, when the Ramakrish­na Mission deemed it necessary to declare itself a non-Hindu minority (a self-definition challenged in court by its own members and struck down) in order to prevent the West Bengal government from nationalizing its schools.[1]  Art.30 constitutes a very serious discrimination on grounds of religion, and is in conflict with the professed secular character of the Indian Republic. 

 

         In no democratic country would a majority community tolerate such discrimination, and it says a lot about the stranglehold which the secularist intelligentsia has on public discourse that this article hardly ever figures in debates on secularism and communalism.  It also says a lot about the meekness of the Hindus in general and about the incompetence of the Hindutva movement in particular.  Amending Art.30 to extend the privileges of the minorities to every community including the Hindus would benefit Hindu society as a whole, would terminate a humiliating and damaging inequality, but would not affect the minorities; they retain the rights conceded to them in the present version of Art.30.  No doubt some minority and secularist agitators will try to explain that equality before the law constitutes oppres­sion of the minorities, but it should be feasible to restate the correct position in such a way as to convince most unbiased observers.[2]  At any rate, the Muslim and Christian masses would not feel affected the way they would be in case of the enactment of a Common Civil Code, and that makes the issue much easier to handle.  So easy that even the BJP could do it.

        

         So, from the Hindutva movement's viewpoint, this should be a beautiful campaign theme: it is a very consequential issue, it is very representative of the discrimination which Hindus claim to suffer in secular India (and thereby justifies to the outside world why there has to be a Hindu movement in the first place), the amendment is impeccably secular, and best of all: it is not directed against anyone, it is a revolution with no enemies.  If the BJP had any political acumen, it would have taken a parliamentary initiative to amend Art.30, or prominently raised the issue in some other way, in the months before the 1996 Lok Sabha elections.  This would have forced the other parties to either come out in support of the equality principle, so that the BJP could claim a major victory for Hindu interests; or to defend the existing inequality, and in that case the BJP could go to the voter (and to world opinion) with the unambiguous proof that it is not the BJP but the other parties which stand for religious discrimination and injustice. 

 

         In spite of all the benefits which such an amendment would have for Hindu society as well as for the BJP, no attempt was made in that direction.  The 1996 BJP Election Manifesto does not mention Art.30 in the list of "Constitutional reforms" proposed on p.9-10.  The article is mentioned only on p.64 in a two-line promise, fifth in a list of fourteen points under the heading "Our minorities": "5. Ensure equality for all and discrimination against none on grounds of religion in matters of education by amending Article 30."  Note that the BJP does not find the issue suffiently important for spelling out just what amendment it proposes.  The record shows that the BJS/BJP parliamentarians (including India's longest-serving parliamentarian, A.B. Vajpayee) have never taken any initiative on this matter.  No politician with whom I have spoken could give a credible explanation for this decades-long negligence. 

 

         The VHP included the demand of an amendment to Art.30 in its Hindu Agenda (a list of 40 demands presented to all political parties, drawn up during the VHP National Board meeting in Mumbai in December 1995, which I attended), but not with due prominence.  A leading VHP sadhu explained to me that he and his colleagues had found the temple issue (liberation of the sacred sites in Kashi and Mathura) to be the best mobilizer among the masses, while issues like Art.30 attracted little attention among the people.  My suspicion is that he neither questioned nor informed common people about Art.30, and that his finding was perfectly circular: if you only think and talk about the disputed temples, it is obvious that this is what people will respond to.  The Hindutva activists attribute to the people their own narrow focus on symbolic but inconsequential issues.  When you see how the small Christian community can lobby and mobilize for its "Reservations for Dalit Christians" demand, the claimed difficulty in mobilizing Hindus against their second-class status in education sounds like sheer laziness.  At any rate, leaders don't ask the masses for motivation, they motivate.   

 

         Among BJP spokesmen, it was only Rama Jois, the lawyer represe­nting the BJP before the Supreme Court in connection with the Ayodhya dispute (1993-94), who agreed with conviction that the BJP should take up the issue and showed that he had even given some thought to the formulation of the required amendment.[3]  The only Member of Parliament who has formally proposed an amendment to Art.30, extending minority privileges to the majority, is Syed Shahabuddin (April 1995).  His ostensible reason was that every linguistic or religious community which is in a minority at some level, is bound to also be the majority at some other level (say, national versus provincial or local).  His Bill never made it to the voting stage, but it showed how Shahabuddin is aware of the mobilizing potential of the Art.30 issue: he tried to defuse it before the BJP could acquire the brains to perceive and exploit this potential.   

 

         If anti-Hindu leaders like Shahabuddin can see the importance of this issue, how come the BJP leadership is ignoring it?  Is it sheer brain paralysis, as Hindu critics of the BJP allege, that the BJP spurns manageable and important issues in favour of unmanageable and unimportant ones?  In this case, I really don't know even the beginning of an explanation.  It is typical of Sangh mores to put on a clever face and pretend there is a secret long-term strategy which will take care of everything, but I am skeptical.

 

         Article 30 is the Constitutional bedrock of a considerable list of similar anti-Hindu discriminations.[4]  Among them is the unequal treatment of Hindu and non-Hindu places of worship.  Muslims have full control of their mosques, Christians have full control of their churches, but Hindus are systematically deprived of the control of their temples.  Recently the authorities tried (unsuccessfully) to have the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Hyderabad declared a Hindu temple, because that would allow them to take it over and do what they have been doing everywhere to Hindu temples: siphon the income off to their own pockets or to other non-Hindu purposes.  This is a major factor in the dire poverty which Hindu temple priests (whose wages have not been adjusted for decades) and their families suffer. 

 

         Injustice to Hindus in education and temple management: here are two problems with deep and painful effects on the life and the future of Hinduism, and what is the BJP doing?  If the BJP does not take up these issues, if it does not present a short-term plan to remedy this injustice, if its state governments do not do everything within their power to give at least partial solutions to these problems with immediate effect, then the party does not deserve to get a single Hindu vote. 

 


 

             [1]  The attempts of the RK Mission and of an Arya Samaj faction to get recognition as a religious minority prove several things: that Hinduism is a dirty word and many Hindus are ashamed to be called Hindu; but also that Hindus under threat do not count on the BJP to defend them, and prefer the safety exit to minority status.

                  [2]  I remember M.J. Akbar arguing to this effect against any tampering with Art.30, on the assumption that this would mean bringing the position of the minorities down to that of the Hindus, rather than adjusting the Hindu position upward.  Among foreign India-watchers too, the impression exists that the BJP would take away these rights from the minorities rather than extend them to the Hindus; this may be due to disinformation by the M.J. Akbars of this world, but unfortunately, it cannot be excluded that some Hindutva spokesman has indeed been stupid enough to interpret "amending Article 30" in this sense, unmindful of the terrific agitation which this would provoke among the minorities.

             [3]  Interview, December 1995, Vadodara.  Jois's comment on the Supreme Court verdict (rejecting a request by the Narasimha Rao government to pass judgment on the historical question whether the Babri mosque had indeed been built in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple) is in Swapan Dasgupta et al.: The Ayodhya Reference (Voice of India 1995), p.96-106. 

             [4]  Discussed in Abhas Chatterjee: The Concept of Hindu State, p.33-44.

 

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