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What Ambedkar Really Said About Uniform Civil Code

S.N. Sahu |
A newly-formed nation, just recovering from the Partition, had the sensitivity and sensibility to recognise that citizens consider both social reform and religious identity important.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On 9 December, Kirodi Lal Meena, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP in the Rajya Sabha, introduced a private member’s bill seeking a national inspection and investigation committee to prepare a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and implement it all over India. Opposition members across party lines opposed the bill, which ultimately was tabled in the House through voice vote. The Opposition requested Meena to withdraw his proposal and Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, to refuse permission to introduce the bill, which carries the power to destroy the country’s secular foundations.

John Brittas, the Rajya Sabha MP from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), referred in the House to a recent Law Commission of India report, which categorically says that a UCC is “neither necessary nor desirable”. He described the UCC as an “uncivil code” that would polarise society. The recent consultation paper of the Law Commission says, “This Commission has therefore dealt with laws that are discriminatory rather than providing a uniform civil code which is neither necessary nor desirable at this stage. Most countries are now moving towards recognition of difference, and the mere existence of difference does not imply discrimination, but is indicative of a robust democracy.”

Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam said proposals to enact a UCC have been listed many times before but could not be introduced after other members of the House resisted and opposed it. He said the foundations of secularism and federalism that hold the country together are at stake, and a bleak future lies ahead if this private member’s bill is passed. He also asked the House to be mindful of the concerns of the minorities regarding a UCC, saying, “We should not create apprehension in their minds.”

Reminding members of the Partition, Siva referred to MA Jinnah’s call to Muslims to move to Pakistan, which they ignored by staying back, choosing to contribute to India’s struggle for freedom and later building the country’s economy with their contributions. Siva, representing Tamil Nadu in the House, appealed to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to keep the country’s future in mind and disallow the introduction of Meena’s bill.

However, Union Minister for Commerce and Industry and senior BJP leader Piyush Goyal supported Meena’s bill and said the comments of those who opposed it at the introduction stage pained him. Citing BR Ambedkar, the first law minister and head of the committee that drafted the Constitution of India, Goyal said, “It is the legitimate right of a member to raise an issue under the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution.”

It is well known that the Directive Principles of State Policy or DPSP enjoin the State to endeavour to secure a uniform civil code for citizens. However, the opposition Members of Parliament firmly believe that the UCC is a strategy to deepen the process of dividing religious and other identities in the country and stoking conflicts around them. It is this fear and concern that they were voicing in Parliament when they opposed the bill Meena wanted to introduce. They fear that the ruling regime would accept the UCC and that both houses of Parliament would pass it thanks to the brute majority the BJP commands.

Ambedkar’s Cautious Support for UCC

BJP leaders may cite Ambedkar’s support for a UCC as they push it in Parliament, but is it really in sync with the vision of the man who framed India’s Constitution? Ambedkar supported the inclusion of a Uniform Civil Code in the DPSP, but he was mindful of the serious objections several Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly had to it. Ambedkar had also hoped no government would exercise its power to enact a uniform code in a way that would “provoke the Muslim community to rise in rebellion”.

On 23 November 1948, Ambedkar sought to reassure the minority members in the Constituent Assembly during a discussion on the UCC. He said, “It [Article 35] does not say that after the Code is framed the State shall enforce it upon all citizens merely because they are citizens.” He also said it is “perfectly possible” that the future Parliament may in the beginning make a provision that the Code shall apply only to those who declare that they are “prepared to be bound by it”. In other words, initially, the “the application of the Code may be purely voluntary.”

In other words, Ambedkar felt that a UCC could be introduced initially as a voluntary code and that Parliament would certainly not force citizens to follow it.

On 2 December 1948, Ambedkar said during a lengthy discussion on Article 13 of the draft Constitution dealing with the fundamental right to profess any faith that “it is quite impossible for anybody to conceive that the personal law shall be excluded from the jurisdiction of the State”. What he meant is that in India, religious conceptions are so vast that they cover every aspect of life from birth to death. To not allow the State to intervene at all in religious matters would amount to bringing society to “a standstill”, Ambedkar said. “We have this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is so full of inequities, so full of inequities, discriminations and other things which conflict with our fundamental rights,” he explained. Therefore, he said, the State is

He also said, “...all that the State is claiming in this matter is a power to legislate. There is no obligation upon the State to do away with personal laws. It is only giving a power. Therefore, no one need be apprehensive that if the State has the power, the State will immediately proceed to execute or enforce that power in a manner that may be found to be objectionable by the Muslims or Christians or any other community in India.” Ambedkar also referred to changes in the Shariat law that made it easier for women to seek divorce. He also emphasised that it is “impracticable” for an advanced society to rule out any role for the State in personal law, “for, even the members who belong to a particular community may desire their personal law to be changed.”

Therefore, in terms of the UCC and the freedom of religion, Ambedkar appreciated the feelings of all the members who had apprehensions about the UCC, especially the Muslim leaders. He, in turn, reminded them that sovereignty is always limited. “ matter even if you assert that it is unlimited, because sovereignty in the exercise of that power must reconcile itself to the sentiments of different communities,” he said, adding, “No government can exercise its power in such a manner as to provoke the Muslim community to rise in rebellion. I think it would be a mad government if it did so. But that is a matter which relates to the exercise of the power and not to the power itself.”

In other words, even if that State could legislate on matters related to personal law, the right to practice and profess one's religion would remain a fundamental right, and the Union would not use its powers to ride roughshod over the sentiments or apprehensions of the minorities. Ambedkar thus also made it evident he understands why legislating on personal law is a sensitive issue in India.

As the BJP tries to appropriate Ambedkar, can Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government be mindful of his profound and sensitive observations on UCC and act in tune with his vision? What he said in the Constituent Assembly comprises the legislative intent of the Assembly. If both Houses of Parliament clear the UCC and the Centre foists it on citizens, it would, in Ambedkar’s reckoning, be a “mad” government that tramples upon the legislative intent of those who drafted the Constitution.

SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to the late President of India, KR Narayanan. The views are personal.

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