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The liberalism in BJP’s agenda

The liberalism in BJP’s agenda
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First Published: Wed, Jan 13 2010. 08 03 PM IST

 Photo: Manvender Vashist / PTI
Photo: Manvender Vashist / PTI
Updated: Wed, Jan 13 2010. 08 03 PM IST
With new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari taking office during a turbulent period in the party’s history, insistent voices continue to argue—both from within and outside the party—that the BJP needs to debunk its Hindutva agenda. And a more inclusive brand of politics is the way forward if the BJP has to regain its glory days.
Photo: Manvender Vashist / PTI
Indeed, when even seasoned BJP politicians are unable to define Hindutva beyond mouthing platitudes, and considering the party’s past association with a particularly rabid brand of denominational politics, discarding Hindutva as the party’s core ideology may well be the first step in a fundamental restructuring of its polity. Nevertheless, it does not follow that what has historically constituted the Hindutva agenda policy-wise—implementation of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), abrogation of Article 370 that provides for special rights for the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and establishment of a Ram temple at Ayodhya—is entirely communal in nature.
While the Ram temple issue is undoubtedly a communal one, the same isn’t true for UCC and Article 370. Unfortunately, because of political correctness and a desire not to be associated with the “communal” BJP, the nation’s media, intelligentsia and the larger civil society have avoided these intrinsically liberal and secular concerns.
Let’s start with UCC. In a nation which justifiably claims itself as secular, foisting Muslim personal law on women denies them the right to self-governance. As author Vrinda Narain argues, “In a situation where religion is tied to organized national minorities, this (sexist) discrimination dictates a system of ‘differential citizenship’ based on ascriptive belonging”.
If religion is the exclusive domain of the individual, the government should not outlaw apostasy or abrogate the right of the individual to accept certain parts of a particular religion and not others. What amounts to appropriate religious practice should not be chosen from a government’s drop-down box but left to individual discretion. Indeed, as the 1986 Shah Bano case demonstrated, governments frequently let the most obscurantist elements define religion, and then force that narrow interpretation on the rest of the citizenry.
Muslim leaders argue that the implementation of UCC would mean an imposition of a “Hindu” code leading to denial of rights to those Muslims who wish to lead their lives according to Islamic laws. Therefore, to avoid religious conflicts, instead of abrogating personal laws, a simpler solution would be to offer an updated version of the Special Marriage Act of 1954 to be considered as the default option governing marriages across all denominations: Those who wish to operate under personal laws can choose to do so if both husband and wife agree. The essential idea is to minimize the paternalistic role of the state to the extent possible, while upholding individual choice.
On similar lines, what was supposed to be a “temporary” provision of the Constitution, Article 370 limits the power of Parliament with reference to J&K. Conventionally, “autonomy” has been seen as an essential tool to address the concerns of the people of J&K. But its exact parameters remain ill-defined and contested to this day. Unfortunately, J&K’s special status has ended up meaning dual sovereignty and restriction of movement of individuals and commerce across state borders— making it a virtual state within the state—thereby restricting the autonomy of Indian citizens.
Genuine autonomy has never been given a fair chance in J&K—after all, a provision which circumscribes the freedom of a Kashmiri to sell his land to a fellow Indian can hardly be termed as promoting autonomy. But because Kashmiris are seen from the prism of a monolithic religious-cultural identity and not as individuals, Article 370 is upheld as an example of India’s secularism, and its detractors dismissed as communal.
The argument that abrogation of Article 370 may lead to demographic change is again a terribly paternalistic one. Since Independence, India has seen large-scale internal migration which has affected the demographics of all states. It is not clear why Kashmir should remain an exception or its Muslim majority character should be treated as, well, a holy cow. As long as the Indian state makes no attempt at a deliberate demographic shift, where Indians choose to live or migrate is a choice best left to the individual. Surely, it would be unacceptable if the government prescribed religious birth quotas to maintain demographic stability or if the parochial tendencies of the likes of Raj Thackeray were accorded the force of law. But treating Kashmir differently merely because it is a Muslim majority state betrays a lack of true liberal ethos.
Admittedly, the BJP’s intentions in the case of both UCC and Article 370 are often less than altruistic and instead dictated by political considerations. Nevertheless, this should not detract from the merits of establishing UCC and abolishing Article 370.
Let’s not kill the message only because some may find the messenger unsavoury.
Rohit Pradhan and Harsh Gupta are associated with Pragati—the Indian National Interest Review. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jan 13 2010. 08 03 PM IST