Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Can Modi get Muslims to Agree to a Uniform Civil Code?

The BJP has promised a uniform civil code in its 2014 manifesto. Tarikh Par Tarikh writes about the urgent need for it as well as the difficulties in implementing such a provision.

With respect to minority rights, the massive win by the BJP in the 2014 General Election might legitimately be seen as detrimental—on most counts. There is one provision, though, that if implemented (and it’s a big if) should benefit Muslims—a uniform civil code. This is what the BJP’s 2014 manifesto has to say about the UCC:

“BJP believes that there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, which protects the rights of all women, and the BJP reiterates its stand to draft a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times'.” 

These are noble words but they are also steeped in irony given the past history of the Jan Sangh regarding the Hindu Code Bills. While in 2014, the BJP magnanimously wants gender equality for Indian Muslims, they fought against the same thing, tooth and nail for Indian Hindus in the 50s. BJP’s “guiding light”, SP Mukherjee (as acknowledged on the BJP website’s home page) spoke forcefully against proposals such as banishing polygamy and awarding property rights to Hindu women because, as per him, this would "shatter the magnificent architecture of the Hindu culture"; a fairly inaccurate prediction it would be safe to say.

But ulterior motives aside, at this stage, to use a Shastrism, “they’ll take the runs any way they come at this stage”. If the BJP can get the UCC passed, their past record or their “real” motives matter little here. Of course, that’s easier said than done. First, you have the unfortunate but undeniable fact that the Muslim community in India strongly opposes the modernisation of these laws. Part of the reason is the extreme obscurantism that has taken root. I mean, if the biggest political mobilisation of Muslims post ‘47 was over denying alimony to a poor, aged woman who had been abandoned by her husband, then something is seriously wrong here. Secondly, you have the political alienation of Muslims within modern India. Political alienation, as Partha Chatterjee shows in his famous essay, The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question, which goes hand in hand with a social disconnect from the State. In the 19th century, for example, Hindu Bengalis refused to let the distrusted colonial state interfere in women’s modernisation, a process getting repeated with Indian Muslims in the 21st century. This point, of course, becomes all the more acute given Modi’s background with the RSS as well as the Gujarat Pogrom.

To introduce UCC successfully, therefore, Modi will have to reach out and convince at least some Muslims that hitching their wagon onto a unified law is beneficial for them. This might seem near impossible today but there is one instance that might act as a small precedent. In 1927, a gentleman named Harbilas Sarda moved a bill in the Central Legislature which aimed to bar Hindu child marriage. Surprisingly, a number of Muslim legislators chose to demand that the law apply to Muslims too, in the face of stiff opposition from the mullahs of course. This effort was led by Jinnah (representing Bombay) and his speech from a debates around the bill is, in fact, worth quoting in some detail:

“I cannot believe that there can be a divine sanction for such evil practices as are prevailing, and that we should, for a single minute, give our sanction to the continuance of these evil practices any longer. How can there be such a divine sanction to this cruel, horrible, disgraceful, inhuman practice (child marriage) that is prevailing in India? Sir, I am convinced in my mind that there is nothing in the Quran, there is nothing in Islam which prevents us from destroying this evil. If we can do it today, do not wait till tomorrow. I fully recognize the orthodox opinion. I fully appreciate the orthodox sentiments, the orthodox feelings both of the Mussalmans and of the Hindus. Sir, whether certain practices have any sanction, divine or religious, or not, usages and customs grow up, and when any social reform is suggested which goes to destroy the usages and the practices to which the people are used and upon which they have looked as semi-religious usages and practices, it is always known all over the world that those people who have got deep sentiments, deep convictions, strong opinions, always resent, and they believe that it is destroying the very root of their social life or religion. And, sir, as far as my own constituency is concerned, that, is, Bombay, I have no mandate from them. This measure has been before this House for a long time, this measure certainly has been discussed in the Press and on the platform; but my constituency has not given me any mandate whatsoever, of any kind, and, therefore, perhaps I am very happy and perhaps I am in a better position than my honourable friends, who probably are afraid that they may have to face their constituencies in the future, and that they may have some trouble, or some of them may have got some mandates. But, sir, I make bold to say that if my constituency is so backward as to disapprove of a measure like this, then I say, the clearest duty on my part would be to say to my constituency, “You had better ask somebody else to represent you”.”

Eventually the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929 was passed, fixing the legal age of marriage of girls at 15 and for boys at 18 for both Hindus and Muslims. Of course, there is rich irony here too. In March 2014, Pakistan moved to increase the marriageable age to 18 and 21, respectively, an amendment that India had made in 1978. Just like in 1927, the mullahs opposed it but unlike earlier, this time they won—the bill is still in limbo. Apart from this, the act is patchily implemented in both countries and Modi himself has married in contravention of the law.

As this example shows, having a unified and enlightened civil law is hardly impossible in India. If it could be done in 1929, it should surely happen now, 85 years later. Of course, this will require self-awareness on part of the Muslims and a reach out to the current government to show at least some Muslim support for a UCC. With there being almost no Muslim leadership now—Muslim representation in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has hit an all-time low at 22—it is difficult to say where this initiative will come from, though. Other than that, Muslim leaders who have taken on the mullahs in independent India have usually met a rather ignominious end. While in 1927, Jinnah could challenge his constituency to replace him and still manage to get the CMRA passed, in 1986, when Arif Mohammed Khan bravely resigned over the Congress treatment of the Shah Bano Case, it spelt the end of his political career.

Led by Nehru and Ambedkar, the reform of the Hindu Code Bills in the 50s was probably the single greatest achievement of our Parliament. It created a progressive and gender-neutral Hindu civil law. Indian Muslim law, in comparison, was left untouched, orphaned by the Indian government, the last reforms taking place under the British. This has led to a situation where Pakistan and Bangladesh, the other two successor states of the Raj, have reformed their Muslim Law, leaving Indian Muslims limping in at last place in South Asia. For example, the medieval Triple Talaq provision has been struck down in both Pakistan as well as Bangladesh but exists in India. Think about that: what could be a better symbol of hitting rock bottom than having laws worse than Pakistan? An obvious point you would think, but one that so many Indian Muslims refuse to see.

First published on NewsYaps

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Azamgarh Proclamation of 1857

The town of Azamagarh in Eastern Uttar Pradesh has not had a particularly good run as of late, being infamously stereotyped for terrorism.  Just a few days back, in fact, key Modi aid, Amit Shah, a man who was once barred from entering Gujarat due to the murder cases on against him, had described the town as a “base of terrorists”.

Azamgarh’s past, though, isn’t as bad as Shah might think. Given that today is the 157th anniversary of the Revolt of 1857—it was on this day that the sepoys of Meerut had revolted, riding immediately to Delhi to gain the Mughal Emperor’s support—it might be worthwhile to recall a remarkable document which was published in the town during the Revolt. Called the Azamgarh Proclamation (Azamgarh Ishtahār) this decleration was issued (most probably) by Firoz Shah, a grandson of the Mughal Emperor who fought in Awadh, and aims to set out a manifesto for what the rebels were fighting for.

The ishtahār is secular and largely democratic in tone, appealing to “both Hindoos and Mahommedans” who are “being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the treacherous and infidel and treacherous English”. Moreover, its main appeal is to economic sentiment, laying out in great details how the British had ruined each class of citizen—zamindār, merchant, civil servants, soldiers, artisans and even the clergy—and promising them a better deal after the revolution.

While the Revolt is often criticised as being driven by concerns such as elite privilege and religion (all true to some extent), it is worthwhile to remember that the Azamgarh Declaration shows an indigenous modernity was also at play, tying together the combatants of North India in a very "contemporary" struggle for social, economic and political freedom. Moreover, the fact that a Mughal prince was trying to drum up support in the name of the “people of Hindustan” maybe show the underpinnings of a democratic consciousness, which might seem commonplace today, but was noteworthy for its age.

The original document, published in Urdu, has been lost to us. However, an English translation published by the British in the Delhi Gazette on 29 September 1857 survives. Here is the entire text:

It is well known to all, that in this age the people of Hindustan, both Hindoos and Mahommedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the treacherous and infidel and treacherous English. It is therefore the bounden duty of all the wealthy people of India, especially of those who have any sort of connexion with any of the Mohammedan royal families, and are considered the pastors and masters of their people, to stake their lives and property for the well-being of the public. With the view of effecting this general good, several princes belonging to the royal family of Delhi, have dispersed themselves in the different parts of India, Iran, Turan, and Afghanistan, and have been long since taking measures to compass their favourite end; and it is to accomplish this charitable object that one of the aforesaid princes has, at the head of an army of Afghanistan, &c., made his appearance in India-and I, who am the grandson of Abul Muzuffer Sarajuddin Bahadur Shah Ghazee, king of India, having in the course of circuit come here to ex­tirpate the infidels residing in the eastern part of the country, and to liberate and protect the poor helpless people now groaning under their iron rule, have, by the aid of the Majahdeens, or religious fanatics, erected- the standard of Mohammed, and persuaded the orthodox Hindoos who had been subject to my ancestors, and have been and are still accessories in the destruction of the English, to raise the standard of Mahavir.
  ‘ Several of the Hindoo and Mussulman chiefs who … have been trying their best to root out the English in India, have presented themselves to me, and taken part in the reigning Indian crusade, and it is more than probable that I shall very shortly receive succours from the west. Therefore, for the information of the public, the present Ishtahar, consisting of several sections, is put in circulation, and it is the imperative duty of all to take it into their careful consideration and abide by it. Parties anxious to participate in this common cause, but having no means to provide for themselves, shall receive their daily subsistence from me; and be it known to all, that the ancient works both of the Hindoos and the Mohammedans, the writings of the miracle-workers, and the calculations of the astrologers, pundits and rammals, all agree asserting that the English will no longer have any footing in India or elsewhere. Therefore it is incumbent on all to give up the hope of the continuation of the British sway, side with me, and deserve the consideration of the Badshahi, or imperial government by their individual exertion in promoting the common good and thus attain their respective ends…
  ‘No person, at the misrepresentation of the well-wishers of the British government, ought to conclude from the present slight inconveniences usually attendant on revolutions, that similar inconveniences and troubles should continue when the Badshahi government is established on a firm basis; and parties badly dealt with by any sepoy or plunderer, should come up and represent their grievances to me and receive redress at my hands; and for what-ever property they may lose in the reigning disorder, they will be recompensed from the public treasury when the Badshahi government is well fixed.
  ‘Section I - Regarding Zemindars.-It is evident the British government, in making zemindary settlements, have imposed exorbitant jummas, and have disgraced and ruined several zemindars, by putting up their estates to public auction for arrears of rent, insomuch, that on the institution of a suit by a common ryot yet, a maidservant, or a slave, the respectable zemindars are summoned into court arrested, put in goal, and disgraced. In litigations regarding zamindaries, the immense value of stamps, and other unnecessary expenses of the civil courts, which are pregnant with all sorts of crooked dealings, and the practice of allowing a case to hang on for years, are all calculated to impoverish the litigants. Besides this, the coffers of the zemindars are annually taxed with subscriptions for schools, hospitals, roads, &c., Such extortions will have no manner of existence in the Badshahi government; but, on the contrary; the jummas will be light, the dignity and honour of the zemindars safe, and every zamindar will have absolute rule in his own zemindary. The zemindary disputes will be summarily decided according to the Shurrah and the Shasters, without any expense; and zemindars who will assist in the present war with their men and money, shall be excused for ever from paying half the revenue. Zemindars aiding only with money, shall be exempted in perpetuity from paying one-fourth of the revenue; and should any zemindar who has been unjustly deprived of his lands luring the English government, personally join the war, he will be restored to his zemindary, and excused from paying one-fourth of the revenue.
  ‘Section II. -Regarding Merchants.- It is plain that the infidel and treacherous British government have monopolised the trade of all the fine and valuable merchandise, such as indigo, cloth, and other articles of shipping, leaving only the trade of trifles to the people, and even in this they are not without their share of the profits, which they secure by means of customs and stamp fees, &c., in money suits, so that the people have merely a trade in name. Besides this, the profits of the traders are taxed with postages, tolls, and subscriptions for schools, &c. Notwithstanding all these concessions, the merchants are liable to imprisonment and disgrace at the instance or complaint of a worthless man. When the Badshahi government is established, all these aforesaid fraudulent practices shall be dispensed with, and the trade of every article, without exception both by land end water, shall be open to the native merchants of India, who will have the benefit of the government steam-vessels and steam carriages for the conveyance of their merchandise gratis; and merchants having no capital of their own shall be assisted from the public treasury. It is therefore the duty of every merchant to take part in the war, and aid the Badshahi government with his men and money, either secretly or openly, as may be consistent with his position or interest, and forswear his allegiance to the British government.
  ‘Section III. - Regarding Public Servants.-It is not a secret thing, that under the British government, natives employed in the civil and military services, have little respect, low pay, and no manner of influence and all the posts of dignity and emolument in both the departments, are exclusively bestowed upon Englishmen; for natives in the military service, after having devoted the greater part of their lives, attain to the post of subahdar (the very height of their hopes) with a salary of 6Or. or 70r. per mensem, and those in the civil service obtain the post of sudder ala with a salary of 5OOr. a-month, but no influence, jagheer, or present. But under the Badshahi government like the posts of colonel, general, and commander-in-chief, which the English enjoy at present, the corresponding posts of pansadi, punjhazari haft-hazari, and sippah-salari, will be given the natives in the military service; and like the post of collector, magistrate, judge, sudder judge, secretary, and governor, which the European civil servants now hold, the corresponding posts of wuzeer, quazi, safir, suba, nizam, and dewan, &c. with salaries of lacs of rupees, will be given to the natives of the civil service, together with jagheers khilluts, inams, and influence. Natives, whether Hindoos or Mohammedans, who fall fighting against the English, are sure to go to heaven; and those killed fighting for the English, will, doubtless, go to hell, therefore, all the natives in the British service ought to be alive to their religion and interest, and, abjuring their loyalty to the English, side with the Badshahi government and obtain salaries of 200 or 300 rupees per month for the present, and be entitled to high posts in future If they, for any reason, cannot at present declare openly against the English, they can hearti1y wish ill to their cause, and remain passive spectators of passing events, without taking any active share therein. But at the same time they should indirectly assist the Badshahi government and try their best to drive the English out of the country.
  ‘All the sepoys and sowars who have for the sake of their religion, joined in the destruction of the English, and are at present, on any consideration in a state of concealment, either at home or elsewhere, should present themselves to me without the least delay or hesitation.
  ‘Foot soldiers will be paid at the rate of three annas, and sowars at eight or twelve annas per diem for the present, and afterwards they will be paid double of what they get in the British service. Soldiers not in the English service, and taking par in the war against the English, will receive the daily subsistence-money. according to the rate specified below for the present; and in future the foot soldiers will be paid at the rate of eight or ten rupees, and sowars at the rate of twenty or thirty rupees, per month and on the permanent establishment of the Badshahi government, will stand entitled to the highest posts in the state, to jagheers and presents -
Matchlockmen     2     annas a-day.
Riflemen       2 1/2        do.
Swordsmen       l 1/2       do.
Horsemen, with large horses   8       do.
Do.   with small do.   6       do.
  ‘Section IV. - Regarding Artisans. - It is evident that the Europeans, by the introduction of English articles into India, have thrown the weavers, the cotton-dressers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the shoemakers, &c., out of employ, and have engrossed their occupations, so that every description of native artisan has been reduced to beggary. But under the Badshahi government the native artisan will exclusively be employed in the services of the kings, the rajahas, and the rich; and this will no doubt insure their prosperity. Therefore the artisans ought to renounce the English services, and assist the Majahdeens… [religious freedom fighters] engage in the war, and thus be entitled both to secular and eternal happiness.
  ‘Section V.-Regarding Pundits, Fakirs, and other learned persons.- The pundits and fakirs being the guardians of the Hindoo and Mohammedan religions respectively, and the European being the enemies of both the religions, and as at present a war is raging against the English on account of religion, the pundits and fakirs are bound to present themselves to me, and take their share in the holy war, otherwise they will stand condemned according to the tenor of the Shurrah and the Shasters ; but if they come, they will, when the Badshahi government is well established, receive rent-free lands.
  ‘Lastly, be it known to all, that whoever, out of the above-named classes, shall, after the circulation of this Ishtahar, still cling to the British government, all his estates shall be confiscated, and his property plundered, and he himself, with his whole family, shall he imprisoned, and ultimately put to death.'

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bidesia in Kalkatta

I came across this really cool swaang (a satrical folk show common across the heartland) ditty composed by immigrants to Jelepara, Calcutta at the beginning of the 20th century. Have a read:

Dil main ek bhaavna se Kalkatta main aaya
Kaisan kaisan maja ham heeya dekhne paaya
Ari Samaaj, Brahmaa Samaaj, girja, mahjid
Ek lota main milta doodh paani sab cheej
Chhota bara aadmi sab, baahar kar ke daant
Jhapat maar ke bolta hai, Angreji main baat

This reminded me of the documentary Bidesia in Bambai, which tracks Bhojpuri immigrants in Bombay and shows that in a century, little has changed. You can watch a trailer of the movie here: