Will India ever have a Muslim Code Bill?
By M J Akbar
As power settles into the comfortable grooves of a five-year plateau, a useful question awaits a response: what does India want to be by 2014? If the answer was simple the query would not have been raised.
To suggest that Indians want a better, more egalitarian economy is both obvious and inadequate. Indians have demanded a high growth rate since 1947. They desired independence because they believed it would offer a better life, free from exploitation by a taxing state and accompanying layers of smug middlemen. The horizon has not remained static for 60 years, even if the poor and the indigent might still wonder if the State cares quite as much for them as it does for middlemen.
What is the skyline like in 2009?
What Indians seek more than anything else is the economic equity and cultural freedoms of a modern nation-state. Poverty is anti-modern. It stinks of a colonised past we would rather forget. But modernity is much more than money. There are countries that have money beyond the definition of avarice, or resources beyond the limits of good fortune. But they are neither modern, nor do they show any sign of trying to become modern.
Modernity is a basket of aspirations interlinked in the subtleties of an expanding mind, from gender equality to bakeries to highways to English medium schools to elections to a thirst for newspapers in unknown small towns. Modernity is not about an immature rejection of habits or tradition. A muffin may sit easily beside a dosa during breakfast in Kottayam or Hubli; and a croissant beside a parantha in Rampur. The bar in Mangalore is not about alcohol. It is about choice and freedom from the grey shadows of a moral police. But this is the easy part.
A modern nation is defined by four non-negotiable rights: equality of citizenship across origin and gender; secularism; liberty of speech; and economic equity. It is obvious that the politics of our country works, which is why every election result is a surprise to politicians.
If Mahatma Gandhi is the Father of the Nation then Jawaharlal Nehru is the Father of the Modern Nation, for the alchemy of India's transformation into modern India can be sourced to the passage of the Hindu Code Bill. This remarkable legislation, pushed through serious internal opposition, released Hindu women from the coils of bias and, by the '80s, had made them productive equals in a nation that would be unrecognisable from a telescope rooted in the '50s. Nehru's modernising vision was deeply etched in the imagination of his grandson Rajiv Gandhi, whose ideology might be called liberation-technology. Every computer in India is a living child of a Rajiv dream.
But Jawaharlal and Rajiv were also guilty of one massive failure. Nehru refused to offer Indian Muslims the gift he had given to Indian Hindus; there was no Muslim Code Bill. It is perfectly true that social legislation in Muslim personal law was much in advance of the rights of Hindu women until Nehru altered the dynamic. But it would be self-delusional to suggest that it is perfection. The accidents that control history offered Rajiv a chance to complete his grandfather's unfinished agenda, and his initial impulse was precisely what a modern mind would suggest. But Rajiv was betrayed by the same vested interests that had stopped his grandfather, a powerful class of Congress Muslims for whom the status quo is both comfort food as well as lucrative sustenance. It is entirely logical that those who used the most vituperative language against Rajiv Gandhi over the Shah Bano case should be considered stalwarts of Congress today, without having changed their views.
The price of compromise is rarely paid by the powerful. It is paid by the girl child who is thrust into the seclusion of purdah and driven into forced marriage before she has learnt to discover her social and economic potential. The visible rise of the veil in Indian Muslim communities requires little elaboration. It is a paradox of secular India that one definition of secularism has become the right of minorities to retreat into conservatism. Politicians accept the consolidation of communal identity as the inevitable antidote to insecurity, but that is a dangerous diagnosis. It implies a helplessness on the part of the State in eliminating threat and seeding educational and economic opportunity.
A sedative is not a cure. Will Rajiv's son Rahul Gandhi seek what might be called a Shah Bano moment, or will the need for votes sabotage the compulsion of reform once again?
The pleasant facade of the moment should not delude us into believing that the turmoil of history is now behind us. Such a moment will come, uninvited if we do not seek it out deliberately.
India does not want to become a Hindu-majority Pakistan, and cannot understand why Pakistan refuses to become a Muslim-majority India. This is not criticism of Pakistani nationalism; every Indian today is either delighted or relieved that Pakistan has gone its own, separate way. Only those who truly mean well seek a neighbour that moves towards the 21st century instead of sinking towards the 19th. However, India cannot afford the option of a curate's egg, and be modern in parts, leaving sections that drift slowly towards the mindset of tribal behaviour. The pace of India's advance will be curtailed by a septic limp if Indian Muslims do not march in step with Indian Hindus and Sikhs and Christians towards the horizons of 2014 and beyond.