Swami Vivekananda, Women’s Rights, and Uniform Civil Code

India celebrated Republic Day yesterday. We celebrated National Youth Day on 12th January. We also celebrated the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on 23rd. As I started for my work location on 12th of January, I saw on my way, a statue of Swami Vivekananda in a park. The statue shimmered like diamond, was garlanded, and ameliorated with marigold. The visage was beautiful. A similar image awaited me on 23rd January for Netaji and as we celebrated our Republic Day yesterday, I see flags and flowers blanketing the city. I had a question to myself. Have we limited our appreciation and celebrations to just a tweet a year, a post-share per annum of their famous quotes, cleaning of their statues, and garlanding them? The second question in front of me was – How many ideas of these great minds have we garlanded so far?

In his own words in one of his letters to Sri Alasinga Perumal – ‘ ….I know the world always wants the Man first, then the idea… ’ Ironically, except a few institutions which are working relentlessly to shape his ideas into reality, most of us go by mere semantics. We all want the man first, idea later, rather don’t want the idea at all. Swami Vivekananda is no exception in this matter. Most of the creative souls of our country have been reduced to mere celebrated names.

‘Our right of interference is limited entirely to giving education. Women must be put in a position to solve their own problems in their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them. And our Indian women are capable of doing it as any in the world.’ ¹

‘The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women.’²

Beyond the GDP, GST, and Demonetization debate,  there is a thermometer and the mercury levels are self-explanatory. Home Minister of Karnataka, G Parameshwara  while taking the readings from this thermometer said –  

‘As I said, unfortunately what is happening is a large number of youngsters gather on days like New Year on Brigade Road, Commercial Street, M G Road. Youngsters who are almost like westerners, they try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing. So some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kinds of things do happen.’³

Much has been said and written about the incident and I do not want to dwell too much on it because the matter has been spoken of to an extent that it has become business-as-usual to come across such discussions. While social media has helped us in a lot of ways, it has also opened a channel to dissipate all the energy – positive or negative into oblivion. 

‘Ladke hain, galtiyan ho jaati hain!’4 (They are boys, mistakes happen.)

That’s the mercury position set by a person in Uttar Pradesh who is fighting a Dangal with his son at present. As if the indifference to such utterances by the voters was not enough, he is fondly known as ‘Netaji’. Let Subhash Chandra Bose turn in his graves and forsake the title.

Let’s talk of the rights of women in general in our country. Where do we stand? Are our women free? Are they liberated? Do they exercise equal rights as men (in practice!)?

One must understand that religion is the bedrock of Indian society. This has been the norm from times that I and you can’t remember. Did we have a union constitution from our inception? It was the religion of the time that guided both the moral and the immoral people. We have regulated our lives on certain social principles formulated by our religions and many of us are able to lead a lawful life, not because we know the constitution of India by heart but because we have been taught a few basic rules of humanity since our childhood. They have been so ingrained in our DNA that for many of us, such formulations have become commonsense. Once a rule becomes common-sense, it is almost impossible to credit the source. However, if religions of the world want to take credit for the tenets of love, peace, and truth, they also have to take the blame for despairing inequality between nationalities, religions, castes, gender and so on. Which religion am I talking of here? Not one in particular but the religion that has tried to encroach upon the social lives of human beings. It is a disappointing fact that most of the religions succumb to such a charge. Whether it is the religion itself or the religion’s so called custodians is not a matter of debate. We have the facts with us. Even when most of the distinctions are obliterated, it is a curious case that a man and woman are divided forever. That brings me to women’s rights as seen through the prism of world religions.

Under the current situation, women do not enjoy equal rights in any religion. However, if the advent of a religion is studied, it is seen that the religion was never meant to decide the rights of men and women but to only attain the potential divinity. To put it more clearly, religion is a thing of individual.


‘Religion has no business to formulate social laws and insist on the difference between beings, because its aim and end is to obliterate all such fictions and monstrosities.’5

‘Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy— by one or more or all of these— and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms are but secondary details.’6

Swami Vivekananda had the aforementioned statements to make about religion. Religion is for the self, to understand the self. When individuals come together to form a society and individuals start flaunting their religions, problems arise. The subtle influencing, the not so subtle canvassing, the propagating, the restricting – these when come into play, religion becomes an orchestra and only a set of rules for the society. Most of the times, these rules are made with a predilection towards the rulers of the time. What started as a quest to know and attain divinity becomes a quest to proselytize and oppress. In most of the periods of religious and political history of the world, men have been the rulers and women have played the role of the oppressed. The rules of inheritance, rules of marriage, rules of divorces, rules of domestic etiquette, rules of social gathering, rules of temple and church – all of them were framed by men and women were kept at bay from all the anthropocentric rights.

Shah Bano Case and the blot on Indian Parliament

Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim mother of five from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, was divorced by her husband in 1978. She filed a criminal suit in the Supreme Court of India in which she won the right to alimony from her husband. However, she was subsequently denied the alimony when the Indian Parliament reversed the judgement under pressure from Islamic orthodoxy.The judgement in favour of the woman in this case evoked criticisms among muslims, some of whom cited Qur’an to show that the judgement was in conflict with Islamic law. It triggered controversy about the extent of having different civil codes for different religions, especially for Muslims in India.This case caused the Congress government, with its absolute majority, to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which diluted the judgment of the Supreme Court and, in reality, denied even utterly destitute muslim divorcées the right to alimony from their former husbands. It ensured that muslim women had to remain under the clauses of Islamic law and the alimony had to be paid only till the period of Iddat which amounts to 90 days from the date of divorce.

However, in the later judgements including Daniel Latifi case and Shamima Farooqui versus Shahid Khan case, the Supreme Court of India interpreted the act in a manner reassuring the validity of the case and consequently upheld the Shah Bano judgement and The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 was nullified. Many Muslims including All India Shia Personal Law Board supported the Supreme Court’s order to make the right to maintenance of a divorced Muslim wife absolute. (Wikipedia)

‘Books never make religions, but religions make books. We must not forget that’.7

Hindu Code Bill

Indian Parliament was successful in passing some key bills to reform the Hindu personal law in 1955-56. This bill included Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. Multiple rules were framed to regulate key affairs of marriage, dowry, inheritance, divorce etc. You may find more by just googling Hindu Code Bill. However, in reality a lot of these laws have stayed just on paper. Societal norms haven’t changed much and people continue to lead an ignorant life. For example –

Hindu Succession Act, 1956 states that if multiple Class I heir survive a male deceased, the property is to be inherited by all of them one share each. Class I heir includes sons, daughters, widows, mothers, sons of a predeceased son, widows of a predeceased son, son of a, predeceased sons of a predeceased son, and widows of a predeceased son of a predeceased son. However, I have not come across a lot of cases where property is shared amongst sons and daughters. The male child inherits all the property and the daughter is either too ignorant to understand her rights or she is supposed to be kind and benevolent and not claim her rights on the property.

Similarly, The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 states –

“If any person, after the commencement of this Act, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with the fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more.

If any person demands directly or indirectly, from the parents or other relatives or guardian of a bride or bridegroom as the case may be, any dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees.”

I don’t need to emphasize on this. Nothing has happened to dowry system. On the contrary, a shameful market of appreciation and depreciation has been created according to time, qualifications, and societal development.

‘In India there are two great evils. Trampling on the women, and grinding the poor through caste restrictions.’8

This cannot be accepted, otherwise every religion will say it has a right to decide various issues as a matter of its personal law. We don’t agree with this at all. It has to be done through a decree of a court’
October 2015, Supreme Court of India

The Court during the Shah Bano hearing had regretted that article 44 of the Constitution of India in relation to bringing of Uniform Civil Code in India remained a dead letter and held that a common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing disparate loyalties to laws which have conflicting ideologies.

Who is to benefit from a Uniform Civil Code? Who is to lose? The greatest beneficiary of a Uniform Civil Code would be the women of this nation. It doesn’t matter if the reason was distortion of sacred texts, fallacy of the texts themselves, vulgar patriarchy or foreign invasions – the fact remains that women have remained subdued in all the societies in our country. The law reforms have been cold and the dishonest, appeasing compromises with the orthodoxy of all the religions stunted the growth of this republic. The greatest fear in a political mind of our country is the fear of facing next elections and it is to this fear that almost the greatest of leaders starting from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru till today have given in against the protests of the orthodox sections of each religion, particularly Islam. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in defence of the Uniform Civil Code answering Mr. Mohamad Ismail Sahib during the Constituent Assembly debates had said –

We have a uniform and complete Criminal Code operating throughout the country, which is contained in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code.We have the Law of Transfer of Property, which deals with property relations and which is operative throughout the country. Then there are the Negotiable Instruments Acts: and I can cite innumerable enactments which would prove that this country has practically a Civil Code, uniform in its content and applicable to the whole of the country. The only province the Civil Law has not been able to invade so far is Marriage and Succession. It is this little corner which we have not been able to invade so far and it is the intention of those who desire to have article 35 as part of the Constitution to bring about that change. Therefore, the argument whether we should attempt such a thing seems to me somewhat misplaced for the simple reason that we have, as a matter of fact,covered the whole lot of the field which is covered by a uniform Civil Code in this country. It is therefore too late now to ask the question whether we could do it. As I say, we have already done it.9

When Alauddin Khilji invaded Chittorgarh, Rani Padmini with all the royal women committed Jauhar (self-immolation) to save their dignity and self-respect. As the custom extended its roots across the country, there came a day when foreign invasions were no longer needed for the continuity of the custom as the society donned the role of the invader. Sati continued, perhaps as a testimony to the degradation we the people of India had brought upon ourselves. Have things changed today? I see around me and realize that yes, the burning on the pyre has stopped but Sati continues, married or unmarried, child or adult, relative or stranger – Sati continues. Self-immolation continues, not by fire but by our corrupted thoughts and dishonest inaction. When we take the role of invaders, the women know the solution taught to them through history – self immolation – the one in which one doesn’t die but neither lives. I see women around me. I see a fear, of walking out of her home, of walking into her home!

Uniform Civil Code promises to destroy the male dominance, patriarchy, and male chauvinism. It is definitely not the panacea but perhaps the first step towards achieving equality. That a democratic republic that guarantees such an equality on paper has not been able to achieve it in practice is unfortunate. That a nation which celebrates eons of great personalities every year has not been able to take up their ideas and work on them is unfortunate, that a nation boasting of the identification of beings by their souls which is without a sex, without a caste, and without a religion has not been able to provide a free and fair atmosphere to its women is unfortunate and criminal.

There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of woman is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.10

Till that time when education gets deep-rooted in every nook of our society and all the personal laws become obsolete owing to rejection by our educated mass, we will have to take to constitutional laws to take care of the wing that has been battered through centuries. We cannot and must not sacrifice the current generation of victims in our wait for that Utopian society.

References

  1. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_3/Lectures_from_Colombo_to_Almora/Vedanta_in_its_Application_to_Indian_Life
  2. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_8/Notes_Of_Class_Talks_And_Lectures/Women_Of_The_East
  3. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/bengaluru-women-molested-on-new-years-eve-minister-blames-western-ways-4456333/
  4. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/politics/mulayam-singh-yadav-questions-death-penalty-for-rape-says-boys-make-mistakes/
  5. http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda/volume_4/writings_prose/what_we_believe_in.htm
  6. http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda/volume_1/raja-yoga/concentration_its_practice.htm
  7. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_1/Lectures_And_Discourses/Soul,_God_And_Religion
  8. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_6/Epistles_-_Second_Series/LXXV_Shashi
  9. http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol7p11.htm
  10. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_6/Notes_Of_Class_Talks_And_Lectures/Mother-Worship

P.S. This article is interspersed with quotes of Swami Vivekananda and a few from our leaders of today. I have attempted to contrast our realities to the ideals we celebrate and worship to bring forth our utter hypocrisy. I request the groups that are fighting for women’s rights to pitch vociferously for Uniform Civil Code for our nation. Religion must have nothing to do with social rules and reforms and be kept aside when one deals with matters concerning human rights and their violation. In my opinion, bringing UCC will be a good start to attain that separation. 

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