Minority rights & wrongs
While courts have managed to provide a measure of relief in some cases, by and large women continue to suffer from the consequences of personal laws.india Updated: Oct 25, 2006 01:12 IST
A simple compact has governed India’s treatment of its minorities. Given that the overwhelming majority of the country is Hindu, the system has gone out of its way to reassure minorities that brute majority in Parliament will not be used to compel them to change their customary law. The early leaders of the country did not hesitate to codify the personal laws of the majority community through statutes like the Hindu Marriage Act, but steered clear of doing the same for minorities. When, in a celebrated, if infamous case, the Supreme Court insisted on providing maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman, based on civil law, and against customary Muslim law, the government of the day passed an act that nullified the court’s judgment. It was not as though the government was against maintenance for the woman, but that it felt the need to reassure the minority Muslims. The process of change, this secularist theory insisted, would have to come from within the community in question, even though there was wide acknowledgement that many of the customs that the communities wanted to preserve were patriarchal and discriminated against women.
While courts have managed to provide a measure of relief in some cases, by and large women continue to suffer from the consequences of personal laws. This is what brought about the multiple tragedies that Imrana has had to suffer. She was raped by her father-in-law, an
act which local Muslim clerics decided, through an incredible somersault of logic, nullified her marriage since she has become her husband’s mother. For Imrana, the conviction of her father-in-law for rape has been less of a victory than a disaster — the judgment having once again led to a clamour among Muslim clerics that her husband abandon her.
How long should the Indian State, confronted with such levels of obscurantism, suffer the insult to the rights that every Indian should have under its Constitution? The Directive Principles of State Policy have accepted the need for a uniform civil code and the Supreme Court has sent repeated reminders through judgments of the need for the code. The time has come to grasp this bull by its horns, or face malign consequences.