Election In Pincodes: In battle for the hills, UCC tensions cast a shadow | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: In battle for the hills, UCC tensions cast a shadow

By, Haldwani
Apr 18, 2024 07:57 AM IST

Uttarakhand town of Haldwani is tense as government introduces Uniform Civil Code bill, polarising Hindus and Muslims ahead of elections.

The winter chill was still lingering when the dull thud of jackboots started ricocheting off the hills that frame Haldwani. It was the first week of February but the air was thick with rumours about the government bringing a tough new law to regulate marriages and divorces. As a phalanx of men in olive green uniforms marched through the narrow streets of Banbhoolpura town, its mostly Muslim residents flinched at the comments being hurled their way and the sight of the police and paramilitary filing through their neighbourhoods, taking positions at chowks and street corners otherwise reserved for gossip-minded gatherings. To residents such as Pammi Saifi, the bandobast fuelled the premonition of unease. “We were scared,” he said.

Election In Pincodes: In battle for the hills, UCC tensions cast a shadow
Election In Pincodes: In battle for the hills, UCC tensions cast a shadow

He had reasons to be anxious.

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The town of 23,000, among the most densely packed enclaves of Muslims in Uttarakhand, and part of the Nainital_Udhamsingh Nagar parliamentary constituency had been roiled by sweeping protests in 2019 after Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, a controversial law that fast-tracked citizenship for Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsi immigrants who entered India before December 31, 2014 from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. From February 3, the police took positions outside every mosque and in every Muslim locality, even checking large gatherings and people going to their homes. “We were not aware of what was happening as the policemen were not telling us why they were deployed. They only said they were following instructions from Dehradun,” added Saifi.

Behind the tension was the state government’s push for a uniform civil code (UCC), a common set of laws that will subsume customary laws across faiths and govern issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and maintenance. UCC, part of the troika of core ideological goals of the BJP, was among the party’s poll promises in the 2022 assembly elections. Shortly after winning an unprecedented second consecutive term, the government set up a 10-member committee headed by former Supreme Court judge, justice Ranjana Prakash Desai. On February 6, the government introduced the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill 2024, seeking to standardise laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and maintenance, and subsume customary laws across faiths and tribes with the exception of the scheduled tribes.

The bill, with 392 sections divided into four parts and seven chapters, provided for equal rights to women in marriage, divorce, alimony and inheritance of property, proscribed certain kinds of relationships, banned polygamy, set the marriageable age for men and women (21 years and 18 years respectively), and made registration of marriages mandatory. More importantly, its provisions overrode some Muslim personal laws that allowed marriage of anyone who attained puberty.

For many locals, the legislation’s sting lay not only in its fine print but in the rhetoric it generated – from politicians and neighbours alike. “People would make jokes about us…taunt us saying that Muslims will not be able to follow Shariat anymore,” Saifi said.

Two months on, UCC remains a live issue as the hills go to the polls in the first phase on April 19. Just as it was in February, the import of UCC lies more in its response – polarising, and starkly different across communities. Among the majority Hindus, it represents yet another example of the things a “strong” government can achieve and a fulfilment of core ideological goals such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. “We are glad that the BJP has fulfilled its poll promise,” said Narendra Singh, a resident of Haldwani town.

But among the minority Muslims in the area, the issue brings up deeper insecurities about their ways of life, rights and social response.

HT graphic
HT graphic

UCC has been among the most controversial issues in India, since before independence. The question triggered animated debate in the Constituent Assembly, before the framers of India’s founding document chose to place it among the non-justiciable directive principles of state policy. But UCC, along with removal of Article 370 in Kashmir and the building of a Ram Temple, remained at the forefront of the BJP’s ideological agenda for decades.

At its core, UCC refers to a common set of laws that all people of the nation, regardless of their religion, must follow when it comes to personal matters such as marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, and succession. At present, different religious communities in India are governed by personal laws, which have been codified over the years through various pieces of legislation. Some examples are the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Indian Christian Marriages Act, Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act. However, Muslim personal laws are not codified and are based on their religious texts, although certain aspects of these are expressly recognised through laws such as the Shariat Application Act and Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act.

When Uttarakhand brought the UCC bill on February 6, it became the first Indian state to bring such a legislation at a time when states such as Assam and Gujarat hinted that they’ll use the northern state’s bill as a template to build their own laws.

In Haldwani, which houses the second-highest population of Muslims in the state, many community members were anxious but careful. The district was the only one in the state where protests against CAA broke out in 2019-20, resulting in the arrests of around 100 people and a few minor clashes. Then, last year, an order to evict residents, mostly Muslims, from a parcel of land owned by the railways triggered more protests, prompting the Supreme Court to step in and temporarily halt the demolitions. Every time they agitated, however, residents felt the divide deepen with their neighbours and in the locality.

With UCC round the corner, therefore, they were cautious. On February 7, Muslims in Haldwani held a string of meetings to spread awareness among the local population about UCC being a “political tool” before the 2024 elections. “We knew that we cannot fight the UCC battle with protests as it would be falling into the BJP trap,” said Mohammad Yusuf, a senior lawyer in Haldwani district court, who participated in one of such meetings. The Muslim leaders decided to meet people in local mosques and tell them not to protest against UCC. “We told people they should not worry as we would be fighting UCC legally once the rules are notified,” said Yusuf, who is also district head of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.

Eventually, there were no protests that day. “No protest or law and order situation rose due to UCC ever since it was introduced in the state assembly,” said AP Anshuman, additional director general of police (ADGP) law and order, who issued directions to deploy police force in Muslim dominated areas.

But the simmering resentment burst forth the next day when the government demolished an Islamic seminary and a mosque in Banbhoolpura, as part of an anti-encroachment drive. In the clashes that broke out, six people were killed and 50 people were injured, including 14 policemen.

Violence erupted in Banbhoolpura locality of Haldwani over the demolition of an “illegally built” madrasa. (HT Photo)
Violence erupted in Banbhoolpura locality of Haldwani over the demolition of an “illegally built” madrasa. (HT Photo)

Haldwani district magistrate Vandana Singh said that the madrasa was demolished as part of a drive to remove religious structures built illegally on government land. Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami told the media that a court order sanctioned the demolition. But many Muslim bodies in Haldwani said that the building was constructed on nazul land – government land meant for public utilities – and that it was under possession of both Hindus and Muslims since the British days. Moreover, they said the case was under adjudication by the Uttarakhand high court. “The issue is still being heard by the court as there are many litigations on the issue of nazul land,” said Yusuf.

The Nainital Udham Singh Nagar seat is relatively new, having come into existence only in 2009. Spread over the two eponymous districts, the seat has 84% Hindus, about 12.6% Muslims and remaining from other religions including Sikhs. The Lok Sabha constituency comprises the plains of Haldwani and the hills of Nainital, among the most popular tourist destinations in India popular for its pristine lakes and clear view of the upper Himalayas. In the plains, Hindi is common but as one crosses Nainital, the influence of Kumaoni, a local dialect, clearly grows. Picturesque fields of rice and vegetables ring resorts, but riverbed mining in the Gola river that forms the lifeblood of Haldwani also employs an equal number of people.

Over the past decade, Uttarakhand, carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, has transformed into a BJP fortress; the party won every one of the five seats on offer both in 2014 and 2019 with wide margins. In Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar, the margin between the BJP and the Congress candidate was an impressive 339,000 in 2019, though matters at the assembly level are more competitive – the BJP holds eight of the 14 assembly segments while the Congress holds six.

This time, the BJP has nominated its sitting MP and Union minister Ajay Bhatt and the Congress has given the ticket to Prakash Joshi, a former youth Congress leader, considered close to Rahul Gandhi. On the campaign trail, several issues make up the mix – from murmurs against the Agnipath scheme for recruitment to the army (much desired in the state) and repeated incidents of paper leaks in government recruitment examinations to high inflation and the poor condition of the district roads.

But one issue is all-pervasive: UCC. In almost every BJP rally, it is touted as the top achievements of the state government. In some Hindu-majority neighbourhoods, the response is almost triumphalist. Atul Mehta, who owns an electronic goods shop in Haldwani, said his main reason for voting for the BJP was the passage of UCC because it laid the foundation for a national UCC. “The BJP got 370 scrapped and now we have a UCC law in Uttarakhand. The BJP has done what it has promised,” said Mehta.

Alok Sah, a resident of Nainital, said there was a general perception regarding UCC that it is anti-Muslim. “Many people are happy because of this perception…but regardless, its impact will be clearly visible here. This is a big issue of national importance,” he said

Narendra Dev Singh, a resident of Kashipur, echoed his confidence, adding that many in his area saw the uniform law as yet another example of PM Modi’s strong leader credentials. “UCC will surely influence the polls..its impact will be visible mostly on the Hindu population…and those voting for PM Modi,” he said.

Among the Muslims, the response is much more subdued. The bill prohibits certain relationships between relatives allowed under Muslim personal law, sparking fear that the law was aimed at countering Sharia. “You read the provisions of the new law. It is clear that it is targeted at Muslims. How can a government decide whom one should marry? Yusuf asked.

Others are angered by suggestions about how UCC will stop polygamy among Muslims. Shoaib Ahmed, a resident of Haldwani, pointed out that National Family Health Survey data shows that polygamy was not restricted to adherents of Islam alone. “It is just a notion that Muslims have more than one wife,” Ahmed added.

Nainital SSP addresses a Muslim crowd. (HT Photo)
Nainital SSP addresses a Muslim crowd. (HT Photo)

But most of all, many point out the backdrop against which UCC unfolded – such as hate speeches made by some fringe elements at a religious gathering in Haridwar in 2021, accusations of “love jihad” and “land jihad” hurled at similar events in the state which made the judiciary take note, communal tensions stoked by right-wing groups over alleged abduction claims at Purola last year, and their demands that Muslim traders leave town. This is what is behind the anxiety and the triumphalism, especially among sections of the conservative orthodox population. “It’s not just UCC but action against targeting of Hindu girls and our land is why we will support the BJP…it has created a hawa (wave) in our community,” said Manoj Arya, a resident of Rudrapur.

The BJP has championed UCC and rejected any accusation of religious bias. Ajay Bhatt said the passage of UCC meant the BJP implemented its poll promise. “This is in line with Modi ki Guarantee, which means we promise, we implement. This is true for UCC and all other promises. The UCC is not against Muslims and we are just bringing uniformity in personal laws for all as enshrined in the Constitution,” he said.

The Congress, unwilling to give the BJP a wedge issue, appeared to be in two minds. When the bill was introduced in the assembly, the Congress took a nuanced stand, saying it was not opposed to UCC, but wanted the bill to be sent to the select committee for wider consultation. The government did not agree and got the bill passed.

Congress candidate Prakash Joshi said UCC was meant to polarise voters. “Nothing like that happened as people understand the reason behind getting the bill passed in a hurry before Lok Sabha polls. We wanted the bill to be sent to the assembly select committee for wider discussion with experts and community members but the state government was not willing to accept that. This clearly showed their intention,” he said.

The UCC saga in Uttarakhand outlines the potential effect of core ideological issues on the election campaign. Though UCC is yet to be fully implemented, its impact is substantial, and polarising. “UCC is billed as a major achievement by the BJP-led Dhami government and fulfilment of a promise made long ago. …as senior BJP leaders address election rallies here, UCC is projected as a major issue. Otherwise, since it is yet to be implemented, it has no practical impact on the general masses,” said political expert SMA Kazmi.

But its impact might not be limited to the election alone. As they count the days down to April 19, many Muslims rue lost relationships and friendships -- neighbours who lived in harmony for decades, sharing commercial, social and individual ties, only to find that there was little support once fringe elements sought to communalise the atmosphere. “Some of our Hindu brothers didn’t come out in the open to support us,” said Saifi, explaining his hurt. “The trust of over a century has been broken.”

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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