The period immediately before and after independence was seriously marred by communal strife sparked off by the demand for Pakistan and the aftermath of partition. More recently we also witnessed the alienation of the Sikhs in Punjab which for a time threatened a further vivisection of the country.
Independent pdf religion, we have also experienced strife based on other dimensions of ethnic identity such as race in the north-east and language in the south. We had occasion earlier to refer to how the denial of Urdu by the Hindus in Uttar Pradesh contributed to further distancing the Hindus and the Muslims. Similarly , the denial of Punjabi by the Hindus of Punjab contributed in no small way to the distancing of Sikhs from Hindus. The adoption of Hindu as the national language and insistence that it be used for all official purposes by the Union government strengthened Tamil identity in Tamil Nadu. The last few years have shown the emergence of a new Hindu militancy under which there is an effort to assert that India is a Hindu nation. The implications of this development do not forebode well for our society and our nation.
It was the much cherished hope of the makers of independent India’s constitution that if the political system could be isolated from the religious through the enactment of a socially just, democratic, secular constitution that is a constitution in which human rights would be guaranteed and the state itself would profess no religion-the intrinsic cultural forces would reassert themselves and the process of mutual reconciliation would be re-established, unity in diversity would be achieved.
What we have succeeded in achieving is a state without a religion but not a political system which is insulated from religion. We have not been able to secularize our social life. We cannot insulate the political system from religion if the political parties are themselves allowed to be rooted in distinct religious identities and make the promotion and protection of their religious identity their major platform. Some of them, in fact, would now seem to make religious identity- Hindutva- the core of our national identity as well.
Admittedly, there are spheres of life where uniformity may be necessary for the smooth and efficient functioning of society. But the urgency of establishing such uniformity must be clearly established on commonly agreed criteria. The areas of civil, criminal and personal law are such where the case for uniformity can be made. As it happens the criminal law applicable to all citizens is already uniform and does not take cognisance of all the religion that an individual professes. The law governing contracts, financial transactions, rules of civic authorities and public services is also common.
The differences are primarily in the area of personal law and there are differences in the law governing marriages, divorces, inheritance, succession, admission to religious community, status of progeny etc. The arguments for making these laws uniform are sought to be justified primarily on the grounds of rationality and the protection of human rights of individuals-particularly women and children. The arguments may be unexceptionable but personal law is one area where the religious sentiment of a community is deeply involved. The effort to establish a uniform code even for Hindus was fraught with problems. Finally when the relative uniformity was achieved it was through a succession of individual pieces of legislation and even today the laws governing succession, bigamy and adoption are not entirely consistent with the equal rights of women or with rationality. Besides, the changes brought about in the Hindu law have slowly, developed gradually and are still not uniformly enforced. The law governing minimum age of marriage has been found to be unenforceable particularly in the rural areas.
Against this background the insistence that the personal law applicable to Muslims should be modified and brought in line with the law applicable to other ‘Indians’ seems untenable, however desirable in itself may be such an outcome. The best hope for achieving such goal is in the spread of education and in the emergence of a strong internal reform movement from within th Muslim community. The spread of education and the expansion of economic opportunities have been found to provide a generally favorable context for the emergence and spread of reform movements in most societies through neither of them is a guarantee that every educated person or a person of good economic standing will necessarily be progressive or amenable to change. The thin spread of education and the feeling of economic and sometimes, physical insecurity- whether or not justified- that the Muslims feel makes him tied to his community and less open to change.
There is another for the continuing lack of convergence between the perspectives of the Hindus and the Muslims. Their community goals and aspirations are governed by differing points of reference in the history of India. The Hindus tends to glorify in retrospect the Vedic Aryan age or the Gupta period of Indian history, the Muslim is brought up to look to the medieval period of Muslims dominance as the golden age.
The historical context in which these heroes functioned was very different and the methods they adopted to cope with the problems of gaining access to political power in the middle ages down to have the same applicability in an age when we speak of individual freedom, civil equality, basic human rights, democratic processes and representative government. What is more serious is that these divergent reference points in the past and the corresponding self images they help to nurture in the present have the unfortunate consequence of engulfing the cultural descendants of these heroes in an unending imagery of mutual confrontation and enmity. The tendency to teach history as a series of heroic tales without a proper interpretation of the social context and the values of the times which would make them understandable in the present is the source of much mischief.
Our real hope for achieving a peaceful society is in our ability to give meaning and substance to the promise of a socially just, democratic and secular order in our nation state. This calls for much constructive thought, political skill and sustained social action on the part of all who cherish this goal.