The risks BJP faces in adopting Goa model of uniform civil code

BJP may be looking at Goa’s family laws to find a way to adopt the uniform civil code, but the patriarchal forces may feel threatened as Goa law gives women a much higher degree of protection

Uniform civil code
The uniform civil code has been one of RSS's oldest dreams. The sooner it is fulfilled, the more enraptured the RSS-BJP leadership would be | Representative purpose only.

After making a law banning the triple talaq, the BJP has started working on another law — a uniform civil code — along its triumphal journey toward its goal of homogenisation of Muslims.

It is using a different strategy, of course. It is not taking the direct road. It is taking a bypass. The Modi government is not introducing a bill in Parliament. A bill will be first moved in the Uttarakhand assembly. Or in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. Although Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other BJP-ruled states too have expressed eagerness to make such a law, Uttarakhand and UP are driving their steamrollers at higher speed than others.

Explained: A brief history of uniform civil code, and why the idea wouldn’t go away

The Modi government has publicly stated it has no plan to make such a law. In its replies to questions in Parliament, it has repeatedly said the subject requires “wide consultations with stakeholders” before it can take any steps in that direction.

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But neither of the two leaders who matter in the BJP today — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah — has asked Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of UP or Pushkar Singh Dhami, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, or any of the chief ministers of the BJP-ruled states to drop their plan of making a uniform civil code. Nor have they told them to conduct ‘wide consultations with stakeholders’ before proceeding on it.

Old dream of RSS

Their approval of the moves in the BJP-ruled states is implicit. And it is hardly surprising, for a uniform civil code has been one of the fondest oldest dreams of the RSS. The sooner it is fulfilled, the more enraptured the RSS-BJP leadership would be. But they are being cautious. Although the Modi government is in a position to pass any law it wants, they have not been able to figure out what kinds of reactions and repercussions a Government of India legislation on a uniform civil code might unleash and whether they can see them through without any major costs to communal peace and public order, international relations, the government and the party.

The ideal course for them under the circumstances would be to use one or two states as laboratories to try it on a small scale and see what happens. Any eruptions against it can be easily contained if it is confined to a state level. The Centre can use paramilitary forces, political maneuvering and other means to quell the disturbances.

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However, the project might not be as easy as knife through butter. Because, although the BJP target is Muslims, a uniform civil code will burn to ashes the religion-specific personal laws of the Hindus, Christians and Parsis also by which their civil life — marriage, divorce, alimony, succession, inheritance and so on — has been governed for close to a century. That is why the Modi government has from the very beginning maintained that wider consultations with stakeholders are required. Not just Muslims, but the Hindus, Christians and Parsis too have to agree to let their civil life be guided by a uniform code.

How is the chief minister of Uttarakhand or UP going to engage and get the approval of all the communities before framing the law? Even supposing they do engage the leaders of all the communities of their state, will they be considered representative of the Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Parsis of the whole country?

You can see there are too many imponderables for framing a uniform civil code. That could mean that ultimately the proposal for such a code in Uttarakhand or UP gets stuck in a barbed tangle of legal opinions, petitions, memoranda, acrimonious assembly speeches, agitations, campaigns and lawsuits.

Looking at the Goa model

There is a short-cut Dhami or Adityanath might try. There have been hints about it before. They say Goa has a ‘uniform civil code’ and they might use it as a model. A parliamentary panel headed by BJP leader Sushil Modi recently visited Goa to study the ‘code’.

However, Dhami or Adityanath might not find it easy to adopt the Goa model. For, they would be uncertain how the extremely male-dominated society in their state will react to it. Goa does not call it a uniform civil code but family laws. One of the most unique features of those laws — which were introduced by the Portuguese in 1870 — is the relationship of marriage to property.

According to this feature — known as communion of properties — all the properties brought by either of the spouses by gift, succession or a previous exclusive right from before the marriage as well as all the properties acquired or earned by either of them during the subsistence of marriage, are to be held as common property by the two spouses till the dissolution of their marriage by death, divorce or separation.

The ownership and possession of the common property are vested in both the spouses. None of the common properties can be partitioned during the subsistence of marriage. None of them can be partitioned or transferred or alienated without the consent and agreement of both the spouses.

Since the right to hold common property flows from marriage only, the dissolution of it can cause a partition of it. When the marriage is dissolved by divorce, each spouse gets one half of the common property. Irrespective of who has given the cause for divorce, an equal division takes place. When the marriage is dissolved by death, say of the husband, the wife gets half of the common property and the half share of the husband gets divided among the children. The wife’s half share is never divided among children as succession is on the husband’s side only. Even when there is no divorce but separation, the common property is equally divided between the spouses.

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In the case of divorce, the family laws of Goa also allow women to get interim alimony as well as permanent alimony amounting up to one-third of the income of the provider, which is not available to women in the personal laws.

High degree of protection for women

It is clear that Goa’s ‘uniform civil code’ provides a much higher degree of protection and support to women than the religion-specific personal laws do. With the consciousness of gender equality growing among women, the deeply patriarchal forces in Uttarakhand, UP, HP or MP might see in the proposal for a uniform civil code a big threat to their control over acquisition, use and disposal of properties.

Already, the patriarchal forces are losing power owing to the trend of more and more women earning their own livelihood. If the women get entitled to half share of all properties by law, that could mean a direct challenge to male dominance — a challenge that would not remain confined to the economic situation but also permeate social, cultural and political domains.

Can the BJP afford to take the risk of liquidating the particularities of the Muslim civil life and the levers of male dominance in family and society, both at the same time?

(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Goa Indica: A Critical Portrait of Postcolonial Goa’)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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