The problem with ‘reforms must come from within among minorities’ argument

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Last week, the government took a stand in the Supreme Court against triple talaq, arguing that such practices were regressive and needed reconsideration. Around the same time, the Law Commission of India issued an appeal (pdf link) seeking public consultation on the issue of Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

This has once again opened up the debate on religious rights of minority groups, especially Muslims, versus overall reform and progression in the society. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has declared that the entire debate was “fraud” and that UCC was not good for the country, while some Muslim clerics have claimed that the government’s stand on triple talaq was “anti-Islamic”.

On the other hand, some activists and organizations like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan have welcomed the government’s stand on triple talaq, though not all of them have explicitly supported the idea of implementing UCC.

The debate is going on and political parties too have jumped into it, but one set of people who are keeping safe is the group that is pretty active on other occasions when some activism can be taken up – the self-proclaimed liberals.

The soliciting of public view on UCC by the law commission would have been a perfect opportunity to show one’s activism, but unfortunately that zeal missing. OpIndia.com contributor Ashutosh Muglikar was among those few ones who tried to make people aware of this appeal by law commission. He created an online friendly form to help people send in their views to the commission.

When explicitly asked about their views on UCC, most of these liberal-secular people would have the following argument to offer – I support reforms, and I agree that some of these regressive religious practices should go, but we should be careful not to impose our views on the minorities. The reform should come from within.

For example, look at this response by Malini Parthasarathy, former Editor of the left-leaning newspaper The Hindu:

Now at first sight, this appears a compassionate, balanced and ‘secular’ response, but this argument – let reforms come from within – has inherent flaws and risks.

First of all, it reduces the question of reform and rights e.g. women rights to “us versus them” issue. The same set of people claim to be fighting against this reductionism on other occasions, but on the question of UCC, suddenly they are part of “us the majority”? In fact, this is a form of communalism, where you suddenly start feeling yourself as part of the majority Hindu crowd when asked to comment on UCC!

Secondly, it gives out a message as if legislation in India is decided by some majoritarian brute force. It’s true that law making is a function of being in majority, but there are enough checks and balances in our constitution and legal system to ensure that this doesn’t turn into majoritarianism. Expressing an opinion on UCC doesn’t mean that the popular opinion becomes the law tomorrow. You were just asked about your opinion, not asked to vote in a referendum! So why is this fear of expressing an opinion without adding a caveat?

And thirdly, and perhaps the most sinister risk, is that when you say that reforms must come from within a group, you are encouraging that particular group to draw strict boundaries to define who is “within”. So the moment someone asks for reforms that are unpopular within the group, he or she is declared an outsider and pushed out of the boundary. Voila! Now that voice is no longer from within.

We have seen how Muslim clerics declare someone a non-believer for not agreeing with their strict interpretations. Commentators like Tufail Ahmad or Tarek Fatah, who insist that Shariat is not good even for the Muslim society, are often branded kaafirs or even Sanghis. This insistence that ‘reforms must come from within’ will only encourage the communities to closely guard what’s within and throw out those asking for change.

It’s time to throw away this political correctness out of window and not hide behind ‘reforms must come from within’ argument.

(originally published on OpIndia.com)