You probably know how it feels to stand on the terrace on Diwali evenings. It is impossible to know where to look. Green sparks jump out of the east, deafening chocolate bombs go off in the west, and rockets criss-cross the sky. Living in India today feels a little like that. The ruling party likes to govern by strategically setting off little explosions across the land so that the people are in a constant state of mental displacement, jarred by dissonances, unable to focus on any one threat or outrage.
Even as Central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate hustle Ministers in opposition-ruled States more as a sinister threat than from any real commitment to fighting corruption, there are periodic raids on independent think tanks and media platforms such as the Centre for Policy Research or Newsclick. A defamation case is thrown at an opposition leader while dodgy amendments are shoehorned into important laws concerning forest conservation or information technology.
Divisions between people are gouged out and lacerated until they bleed. And in the ensuing bloodbath, there are vultures waiting to feed.
We are seeing Manipur haemorrhaging now.
The horrific video of an assault on two women forced the Prime Minister to break his shameful 75-day silence, but he carefully parenthesised his words with whataboutery. Meanwhile, his Manipur Chief Minister, Biren Singh, who has completely lost the moral right to continue in office, continues in office. Because Manipur’s political and pecuniary usefulness is more important than its people or its peace. This constant need to mine political usefulness and electoral strategy from every gash in the nation’s body also informs the latest little firecracker the Prime Minister set off when he suddenly announced at a rally in Madhya Pradesh that the country needed a uniform civil code. There are several State Assembly elections scheduled for the later part of this year followed by the general election next year, so it makes electoral sense for the BJP to create fresh fears and divisions.
It is this need that has whelped the UCC project. It is difficult to imagine India’s right-wing parties as champions of women’s rights. One recalls the protest marches held in support of the accused when an eight-year-old girl was raped in Kathua. Or the struggle women wrestlers underwent just to have an FIR for sexual harassment filed against BJP MP and wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
However, regardless of motive, the fact remains that implementing the UCC is part of the BJP’s manifesto as was abrogating Article 370. Given its near-dominance in Parliament, it might be quite willing to ram it through now.
In itself, a common civil code is not undesirable—religious faith cannot justify polygamy or keeping women out of inheritance or disallowing divorce. However, as the 21st Law Commission pointed out in its superbly nuanced 2018 report, “it is urged that the legislature should first consider guaranteeing equality ‘within communities’ between men and women, rather than ‘equality between’ communities. This way some of the differences within personal laws which are meaningful can be preserved and inequality can be weeded out to the greatest extent possible without absolute uniformity.”
This is the correct approach to take for any government ruling a country as diverse as this. The long-term vision should not be to wipe out differences among the various communities but to bring in reforms that wipe out gender or caste or other discriminations within communities. This requires patience and sensitivity, qualities that usually become casualties when agendas are driven by political expediency alone. Just as in a different context Manipur has become a casualty now.