Monday, 2 December 2013

Some Thoughts On Vote-Bank Politics And A Uniform Civil Code

A friend pointed me to a program on NDTV where the prominent Indian politician, Subramanian Swamy, made a couple of noteworthy points.

Subramanian Swamy - voice of reason, or dangerous demagogue?

His first point pertained to vote-bank politics. He said, very correctly, that Indian politics has always been dominated by vote-bank calculations along religious and caste lines. Politicians have always tried to appeal to narrow sectarian interests, such as Yadavs, Jats, Dalits and Muslims. I'm not very sure if he was right in claiming that Muslims (or indeed any other group) vote as a bloc, but I certainly don't agree with his corollary that he is doing nothing different by attempting to consolidate the Hindu vote by dissolving the caste boundaries that divide Hindus.

My reasoning is that multi-cornered electoral contests are less "dangerous" to a society than two-sided ones. Multi-cornered fights are necessarily more diffuse, and the shifting allegiances of coalition politics can prevent communal fault-lines from developing into permanent battle-lines. In contrast, two-sided contests, especially when they take on the flavour of a dominant majority versus a minority, can be quite poisonous, as the example of India's neighbour Sri Lanka should have amply made clear.

So Swamy's innocent claim that he is pursuing nothing different from what political parties have always done, is not something that can be accepted with equanimity. The consolidation of a Hindu vote, if it ever comes about, will be a dangerous development, and it will set India drifting in the direction of a civil war without end.

I believe a secular society must be stoutly defended, but by the state, not a community. In other words, the response to a sports team that plays too aggressively is not an equally aggressive opposing team, but a strong referee who enforces the rules and is not afraid to hand out red cards.

The second point he made was about the desirability of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) for the country, as opposed to the current situation where Muslim citizens of India come under the jurisdiction of Muslim Personal Law (a subset of Shariah law dealing with civil cases like property disputes and alimony, and thankfully not the beheading, stoning, flogging and amputation variety.)

Swamy has a very strong case (as evidenced by the show of hands he was able to elicit in the studio), but in my opinion, the argument in favour of the UCC has never been framed correctly.

Rajiv Gandhi's government erred by introducing Muslim Personal Law for Muslims in the Shah Bano case. In effect, the government threw Muslim women under the bus, starting with Shah Bano herself. A civil court would have granted her alimony, but when her case was deemed to come under the purview of Muslim Personal Law, she got nothing. Clearly, a Uniform Civil Code would be better for Muslim women, since Muslim Personal Law is relatively misogynistic, but would Muslim women vote for it? I doubt it. That's because the whole UCC question has been needlessly turned into one of personal identity, and projected as proof that the Hindu majority is attempting to take away the identity of Indian Muslims by denying them their own system of laws.

The way I believe the UCC should be approached is by positioning Muslim Personal Law as a form of arbitration. All civil cases should be heard by a regular court that applies uniform laws for all citizens, but if the two parties to a case are both Muslim, and both agree to have their case heard by a Muslim court instead, then the case may be referred to the Muslim Law Board as a legally recognised arbitrator. In other words, the two parties agree to settle their case out of court using a community-recognised arbitrator. If either party refuses, the case remains in the civil court. Thus, the UCC does not replace Muslim Personal Law, but merely treats it as an alternative mechanism to resolve disputes if both parties agree.

[Once both parties agree to have their case heard by the Muslim Law Board, they must also agree in advance that its verdict will be binding on them. Neither of them may return to the civil court in case of an unfavourable verdict by the MLB, since such a recourse will just encourage "verdict shopping".]

I believe this is the way the UCC debate should be framed. Muslim Personal Law should still be an available option for two willing parties. After all, even in a civil court, two parties have the right to have their case settled out of court or through the use of an arbitrator. MPL just needs to stop being an alternate universe for Muslim citizens. Provided this legal model is argued and sold intelligently, it is possible that many Muslims will also support it. The perceived assault on minority identity can be avoided while also bringing sanity to the justice system.

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