His struggle to reform Hindu society has lessons for the triple talaq debate
When the Supreme Court delivers its verdict on the contentious triple talaq issue, it would be, perhaps, one of the landmark promulgations in independent India’s judicial history. If the SC were to declare triple talaq unconstitutional, it could well open up the path for the institution of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) — an ideal that has been an important demand of the BJP for a long time.
But as the arguments and counter-arguments are meted out in court, it is worth looking back on the years that led to the formulation of the landmark Hindu Code bills. It is pertinent to invoke this incident for two reasons: One, much of our present debate on the UCC and the triple talaq controversy is still under the shadow of that landmark event.
Second, the pioneering role that B.R. Ambedkar played in bringing those bills to fruition. It is important to remember the degree of opposition that the bills garnered during that time. For instance, in March 1949, the Anti-Hindu Code Bill Committee was formed, which enjoyed vast support from clerics and other conservative lawyers. As Ramachandra Guha chronicles in India After Gandhi, the committee would campaign against the reform bills from place to place.
In these meetings, its primary participants, which included several members of the RSS, characterised themselves as “religious warriors” who were fighting a religious battle. On December 11, 1949, the RSS held a massive rally in the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi where its members denounced the bills in the strongest possible terms. The next day, a march was organised to the Constituent Assembly where effigies of Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah were burnt.
The version of the bill that Ambedkar wanted was never to be had. With the first general election imminent, and fearing a massive Hindu backlash, Nehru had to compromise. Besides, in the Constituent Assembly, many amendments to the original bill were demanded; it took more than a year to get even four clauses passed. Eventually, the bill lapsed. This caused Ambedkar to resign as law minister.
At one point in his resignation letter, Ambedkar, expressing his shock, writes: “The Cabinet unanimously decided that it [the Bill] should be put through in this Parliament… As the discussion was going on, the Prime Minister put forth a new proposal, namely, that the Bill as a whole may not be got through within the time. The Prime Minister suggested that we should select the Marriage and Divorce part.
The Bill in its truncated form went on. After two or three days… the Prime Minister came up with another proposal. This time his proposal was to drop the whole Bill, even the Marriage and Divorce portion. This came to me as a great shock.” The reason for Ambedkar’s shock is two-fold. First, arising from the failure to get the bill passed in its entirety, and second, and more importantly, seeing the core element of the bill — which was about marriage and divorce — rejected as well.
Throughout his life, apart from fighting caste oppression, if there was one cause Ambedkar espoused, it was that of gender emancipation. As his writings testify, Ambedkar very clearly saw the way caste endeared itself to masculinity in order to perpetuate itself. He realised that the primary way to break caste oppression was to make way for marriage reforms. This endeavour was tied to Ambedkar’s larger radical role in taking the Hindu texts to task, by opening them up for reinterpretation, a method by which Brahminical control over these texts was removed. We see this very clearly in his formulation of the Hindu Code Bill, where Ambedkar went back to the texts to reinforce his arguments.
As the nation gears up for the landmark SC judgment, Ambedkar’s pioneering role in trying to modernise Hindu society, and more than anything else, his unwavering commitment to the principles of liberalism is a lesson well worth remembering.