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The ball was set rolling by an English-speaking newspaper proprietor who moves in a world far removed from the by-lanes where it finally landed. The day after the Supreme Court’s observations on the desirability of a uniform civil code, Tariq Ansari wrote a piece in his own newspaper Inquilab, Mumbai’s largest-selling Urdu daily, expressing his readiness for a uniform civil code, provided it applied equally to all communities without favouring any one. In the cautious world of Mumbai’s Urdu newspapers, only the paper’s proprietor could have had such a view published.

Next came the piece by journalist and script-writer Hasan Kamaal, advising readers against a knee-jerk reaction every time the uniform civil code was mentioned. “This code is still in the air. Why should we then be asked to answer with a ‘Yes or No’ whether we are for this non-existent thing, as though we are on trial in court'’’

Kamaal pointed out that a draft had yet to be made, presented to everyone, and accepted by other communities as well. “But that’s something the sangh parivar will never do. Which uniform code will allow marriages between uncle and niece, as is the norm among Hindus in the South' Which code will allow joint families to be exempt from paying taxes the way the Hindu Undivided Family is' Hindus will be the worst affected by such a code.”

Other minorities were also against the code, said Kamaal, but they conveniently remained silent, knowing Muslims would do the shouting for them. Kamaal argued that the sangh parivar raked up the issue of a uniform civil code before every election, knowing that Muslims would go hysterical and give them a handle to tell ordinary Hindus: “Look, these people are against one law for the entire country”. “How long can we go on playing into their hands'’’

This question echoed in the meeting called by Mumbai’s Ulema Council last week to discuss the uniform civil code. It wasn’t just Hasan Kamaal who asked it. And his solution: “Take the wind out of their sails by showing your readiness to discuss it once a draft is prepared’’ was repeated in the concluding remarks of Maulana Zil-ur-Rahman, who presided over the latter part of the meeting. “First present your draft to us, then we shall decide whether we support it or not. If it is in accordance with the Shariat, we’ll support it. If it isn’t, we won’t. But at least show it to us first.’’

A proposition such as this, made by a venerable maulana, completed the cycle of path-breaking events within the community set in motion by Tariq Ansari. The meeting witnessed the usual roars of “The Shariat can be changed only over our dead bodies’’, and a call for boycotting Inquilab was met with applause. But by the end of four hours, it was clear that a substantial section of the select gathering was willing to listen to other voices, voices which had been shut out earlier by the two most influential sections of the community — the press and the ulema.

The decades-old seemingly unbridgeable gap between the ulema and intellectuals seemed to be disappearing when Maulana Zil-ur-Rahman admitted that “Muslim personal law is not the entire Quranic law on these matters. But whatever in it is in accordance with the Quran, cannot be changed.’’ The corollary to this which was left unsaid — that what is not, can be changed — has been the argument of reformists ever since the Shah Bano case.

These are just the first cautious steps towards changing a mindset which made any discussion on a uniform civil code impossible within the mainstream of the community. As a strategy at least, some of those most against the code are now willing to discuss it, knowing it will never come into being. But what of the principle of equal rights for women, on which alone an ideal code can be based'

“If such an ideal code were to be drafted, I would be the first to support it,’’ Hasan Kamaal told this reporter. What happens to the Muslim personal law then' “Once it is accepted that Muslim personal law, which was introduced by the British here, is something quite different from the Shariat, which is based on the Quran and the Hadees, it should not be difficult to accept changes in the key areas of divorce, maintenance and polygamy. Tribals, Buddhists and Hindus practise polygamy more than we do. Why should we bear the onus of defending it'’’

“It’s mainly the maulanas who marry more than once’’, snorted Faridbhai Batatawala, a businessman in the forefront of community affairs. “Even someone like me can’t afford to do so.’’

A growing constituency of Muslims, revealed Kamaal, is willing to listen to people like him who want to present an alternative voice for the community, and still retain their credibility. As a beginning, Kamaal and a few others have compiled the personal laws of 28 Islamic countries to prove that such laws have evolved according to the need of the times. “Are those lawmakers not Muslims'’’ asked businessman Gulam Peshimam, a member of this group. “We discovered that Muslim personal law in India is the worst. But Muslims in Goa and Jammu and Kashmir don’t have to follow it. Do they cease to be Muslims'’’

Maulana Zil-ur-Rahman’s partial admission of this difference between the “immutable Shariat’’ and Muslim personal law, has opened the door to a discussion hitherto considered blasphemous. Another maulana at the Ulema Council meet went so far as to declare that no man and woman should be allowed to marry until they were made aware of each other’s rights under the Quran.

But these rosy developments cannot hide the fact that the majority voted for status quo in the Inquilab poll on this issue. Nor can the fear voiced by Yusuf Muchhala, member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, and a strong advocate of reform, be brushed aside: “We may end up losing the Shariat. We must expose the sangh parivar’s hypocrisy by asking it to first draft a code which will apply to all sections of the Hindu community. But why ask for a draft for all communities' Will those who have prepared it be people who understand the ethos of Indian Muslims' And does our Parliament, with its handful of Muslim MPs, really represent the entire community' How then can it legislate to make us give up our personal law' There was never any question of a discussion on this subject. Why start it now'’’

“The day Muslims say yes to such a discussion, fundamentalist Hindus will follow their mentor Guru Golwalkar in saying no,’’ says writer and chief of the Maharashtra Urdu Academy, Saajid Rashid. “An objectionable draft will be opposed by all communities, not only Muslims, and will expose the RSS’s intentions.”

Interestingly, Muchhala’s anguish is not shared by some of Mumbai’s ordinary businessmen. “The NDA’s own allies will prevent this code, as they prevented the cow slaughter bill,’’ said a trustee of various mosques, while Batatawala went a step ahead: “Such a code will increase the government’s revenue, cause 90 per cent harm to rich Hindus and 10 per cent harm to us by turning the maulanas against us. I am 100 per cent for such a code.’’

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