Open for discussion on personal law amendment, says top Sunni leader in Kerala
A prominent faction of Sunni Muslims in Kerala led by Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar, also known as Shiekh Abubakr Ahmed and regarded as the grand Mufti of India, has in a significant move hinted that the Muslim community is open for discussion on amendment of personal law, but with a rider.
The policy debate for reforming personal laws in India dates back to India’s independence. The debate on the Muslim personal law was dragged into the streets in the late 80s after the Shahbanu Begum case in the Supreme Court and subsequent legislation when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister.
It took a woman warrior in Mary Roy to get the Christian Succession Act amended. It took 50 years for an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act giving daughters the right to demand partition of parental home, making them equal coparceners in property owned by a Hindu undivided family as their brothers.
In recent years, these discussions on personal laws have shifted significantly from focusing solely on marriage or property rights to addressing gender equity. Muslim personal law is yet to be amended, with the community leadership reluctant to embrace changes in Sharia law as it is considered as Quranic and hence untouchable.
According to many Muslim women’s organisations, this adamant stand by the religious leadership gives the BJP government the room to push the Uniform Civil Code or UCC, in the pretext of gender equality.
With the UCC debate gaining steam and many opposition parties deciding to openly challenge it, Aboobacker Musliyar has submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Law Commission, urging them not to go ahead with the implementation of UCC. But in a significant shift in their conservative stance, he has hinted that the community is open for discussion on amendment of personal law if the government deems it is necessary and it is held within the community.
Even though he has put a rider, saying making the personal laws of some communities up to public discussion would increase insecurity among them, many observers think this is a major shift.
“If the government has found flaws in personal laws, it should try to resolve them by sitting down and talking with the respective communities. However, exposing some communities’ personal laws to public scrutiny will make them feel insecure. A large number of tribal communities have voiced their concerns on the proposed UCC. Several states have implemented laws in response to these concerns,” read the memorandum submitted on July 8.
Kanthapuram Musaliyar view
“The introduction of UCC will undermine the nation’s diversity and pluralism resulting in political unrest. The government should reconsider the decision to introduce the UCC. India as a country pride itself on its diversity and pluralism. Across the nation, several communities practice different religions and have unique customs for birth, death and succession. India thrived despite this diversity, which only attracted international interest. The rights, traditions and rituals of every group were taken into consideration when our constitution was being written. The idea of passing some legislation that restricts fundamental rights raises serious questions,” said Aboobacker Musaliyar.
Incidentally, Kanthapuram, who often backs the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front in Kerala, was instrumental in calling for unity among Muslim bodies against a proposed UCC.
He had urged them to set aside the differences. Most Muslim organisations, including his rival Sunni faction, accepted the invitation by the ruling party for a seminar. The memorandum was submitted days before the anti-UCC seminar took place at Kozhikode on July 15.
Even though the CPI (M) is opposed to the proposed UCC, they have been batting for the reforms in personal laws for long.
The other Muslim organisations in the state are surprised over Kanthapuram expressing willingness to discuss personal law.
“Within the community, two ideologies were in vogue. The personal law should not be altered, to start. As is, it ought to remain. Most often, this view was held by conventional groups and academics,” says C Dawood, state committee member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Kerala.
“The second was the claim that Mohammedan law was developed by the British and should be put through a screening procedure in accordance with the Koran and Sunnah. It is important to recognise and change the variables that affected the Koran and Hadis. Most traditional scholars, including Kanthapuram and his organisation, do not hold this reformist viewpoint. A significant public debate will undoubtedly result from their new stance which is a modest departure from their traditional standpoint,” feels Dawood.
“The memorandum submitted by Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musliyar is a silver lining as he has admitted that the existing law is subject to change,” opined C Shukkoor, a lawyer-turned-actor. He has been in the news after he remarried his wife under the Special Marriage Act as a work around to escape the personal law, under which his daughters have no right to their property. “As citizens of a democratic country, the next generation of the community believe in the modern Succession Act and Marriage Act. If other academics and community leaders recognise this, Muslim women will be given the rights that the Indian constitution grants them, and only then will the country be freed from its fear of the proposed UCC,” adds Shukkoor.
Added VP Rajeena, a journalist who has been actively advocating for the rights of Muslim women: “Right from the period of the Sariah controversy, Muslims in India did not have able and wise leadership capable of leading the community. The same situation prevails even now.
“The north Indian mullahs and maulanas who have zero acquaintance with the word reform in its word or spirit and elite groups that enjoy the shades of power and the Personal Law Board are part of the problem which the community faces now. Now we are paying the price, for their turning their back to any proposed reforms, in the form of the UCC,” she wrote on Facebook.
With a major section of Sunnis who constitute the most traditional faction of Muslims in Kerala, a serious debate on reforming the Muslim personal law is again on the cards.