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TRYSTS AND TURNS

Reform must come from within

Civil laws need to address gender injustice in various communities

Reform must come from within

Hijab: It is hoped that what women wear is not sought to be introduced in the UCC. PTI



Julio Ribeiro

I hail from the tiny state of Goa, the only one in the Indian Union where a common civil code has been in operation for the past two centuries or more. I was under the impression that it was introduced by the Marquis of Pombal in Portugal and its colonies around 1760 following the Vizier’s tiff with the Catholic Church, as represented by the Jesuits who were powerful in Portugal at that time. Actually, it was introduced a century later.

Reforms thrust down the throat will produce bitterness that will weaken the unity that is essential for India’s security.

The present Chief Minister of Goa, Pramod Sawant, in a futile attempt to create dissensions, where none existed, between Hindus and Christians, stated that many churches had been built in Goa by the Portuguese on the debris of destroyed Hindu temples. He also said that many more temples would have been destroyed but for the intervention of Shivaji’s Maratha warriors. The Marathas did harass the Portuguese with occasional raids, but the real reason for the decline in mass conversions was the Marquis of Pombal’s directives to his officials in Portugal and its colonies to discourage the clerics from interfering in matters of the State. More relevantly, the State withdrew its patronage to the clerical establishment.

One of the principal fallouts of the arrival of the Marquis as the King’s Vizier (Prime Minister) was bound to be the introduction of the Civil Code in Goa in 1870. The Catholic Church required all Catholic marriages to be solemnised in a church by a consecrated priest. The Portuguese government said religious practices did not concern the State. Its subjects, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were free to follow their own religious rules, but the State would not recognise a marriage that had not been registered by its designated officials.

I remember seeing a bride and her groom in their wedding finery visiting the house of the Escrivao (Portuguese word for writer) in my wife’s village. Her uncle, who was the Escrivao, noted down the required particulars in his register and in a manner of speaking pronounced them ‘man and wife’ even before the parish priest did. Every village had its Escrivao appointed by the government.

My own ancestral house in the village of Porvorim in the Bardez taluka was known as the ‘Casa da Escrivao’ (the house of the writer). My paternal great grand-uncle, a teacher in the village school, was the Escrivao for many years. Births and deaths in the village were also recorded by him.

When my wife’s parents died, she agreed to renounce her share of the ancestral property in favour of her two brothers. When we were on holiday in Goa, an official presented her with a statement of renunciation of her rights since she had an equal share in the property as per the Civil Code, applicable to all citizens — Hindu, Christian and Muslim. When their parents died, my mother and her four sisters each got one-sixth share in the sale proceeds of the ancestral house, the sixth portion being the share of their only brother who had settled in Portugal. Civil laws that govern births, marriage, divorce, succession, property rights and deaths would not be a source of dissension if they recognised that a daughter or any other woman has the same rights as a son or any other man.

In 2019, the BJP government outlawed the triple talaq form of divorce practised by Muslims in India. This reform introduced by the Indian State was well received even by my Muslim friends. The change in the law did not require a Uniform Civil Code (UCC)! It was done by introducing a separate Act of Parliament to address a particular social evil. Why can’t other forms of gender injustice be similarly addressed?

Why can the government not introduce Acts to deal with property rights so that daughters are treated on an equal footing as sons? The distribution of the wealth of the well-heeled presently favours the males in every community, including the majority community. If the government feels that equal rights should be vested in every child, male or female, what is stopping it from bringing a draft Act to Parliament for a decision after the proposed law is vetted by a select committee?

But if the government wants to turn the UCC into a political tool for the electoral contest next year, as it so appears, it will go ahead with its programme and the minorities will put up resistance to assert their identity. The divisive politics could pay dividends for the BJP, at least in the short term. In the future, it may boomerang! When reforms can be introduced gently, without ruffling too many feathers, there is no need for creating a controversy to needle the Muslims. It appears that the BJP is not certain of victory in 2024 and is ready to sacrifice the unity of various creeds in India.

The Hindus will soon realise that their own arrangements for succession in the family and division of property after the death of the householder will also be a casualty of the UCC. Rules now governing undivided Hindu families will come under scrutiny. Tribal Christians of the North-East, recently allied to the BJP, and the most ancient of all Christians in India, the Syrian Christians of Kerala, may also be affected.

I hope what women wear is not sought to be introduced in the UCC. The hijab is certainly not prescribed in the Quran. Many Muslim women who never wore that piece of clothing have begun to do so more as a political statement. The government should wait for the women themselves to discard it, and they will do it without any prompting when they feel more secure and are not treated as unwanted citizens.

Islam needs to reform, like Hinduism and Christianity did, but reforms must come from within. Reforms thrust down its throat will not only not work but also produce bitterness that will weaken the unity that is essential for India’s security.


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