Some Lessons from Dr Ambedkar’s Struggle for Hindu Law Reforms
Challenging Hindu Orthodoxy
AS part of the observance of the 125th anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Sangh Parivar including its top leaders in parliament have willfully distorted and thereby sought to destroy the legacy of his multifaceted brilliant contributions in the making of independent India.
One such aspect is Dr Ambedkar’s understanding of the subjugation of women in India, its links with the system of Chaturvarna and the urgent need for reform within Hindu laws. He had said during the course of the discussion on the Hindu Code Bill “Whatever else Hindu society may adopt, it will never give up its social structures (chaturvarna) for the enslavement of the shudra and the enslavement of women. It is for this reason that law must now come to their rescue in order that society may move on.”
While this remains a fundamental difference between the approach of Dr Ambedkar with the RSS, committed as it is to the tenets of the Manu Smriti, the Sangh Parivar leaders have maintained a deafening silence about their own role in the entire period starting from the 1940s to the end of the decade of the fifties when the Hindu Code Bills were adopted. It is necessary to look back at history not least because there is little change in their views towards women.
At that time, even on the question of the limited reforms within Hindu laws suggested by Dr Ambedkar as law minister in the Nehru government, the RSS and its ideologically affiliated leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, strongly opposed the reforms and also made vicious personal attacks against Ambedkar. They were in the company of many top ranking leaders of the Congress including the then president of India Rajendra Prasad and the then minister for home affairs, Vallabhbhai Patel and others. They were also in the company of Muslim fundamentalists some of whom like Naziruddin Ahmed took the lead in strongly opposing the Bill proving once again the truth that whether Hindu or Muslim fundamentalists, their retrograde views have everything in common, two sides of the same coin.
Dr Ambedkar was termed “authoritarian”, mocked at being a “modern Manu, neither original nor progressive” he was scorned about producing an “Ambaveda”. He was reminded of the caste he belonged to, in not so subtle ways. On some occasions, he responded sharply ‘how can a Brahmin ever be jealous of an untouchable like me” or with wit “they are all lunatics. They are here because our lunatic asylums are too small.” But shamefully even his cabinet colleagues did not stand up to defend him. Only once when there was a particularly heated exchange did Prime Minister Nehru intervene “I am rather surprised at the tender skin of some of the Hon. Members. We have had to put up with a series of speeches and things which have hurt us very much. If that has not been objected to then, I think it is accepted that those who disagree with Dr Ambedkar should not object now.” But the truth is that the main attack was on Ambedkar, not Nehru, so when the Prime Minister spoke of " we" it did not reflect the correct picture.
AMBEDKAR, RSS AND
The period leading upto the confrontation on the Hindu Code Bill saw the assertions of women of the “depressed classes”, the “untouchables”, breaking caste barriers under the inspired leadership of Dr Ambedkar in Maharashtra. Women of the depressed classes were the most assertive, the most militant when following the historic Mahad conference in December 1927, they responded to the call of Dr Ambedkar and joined him in burning the Manu Smriti, the symbol of the legal sanction to the brutalities of the caste system. With this action, the struggle against the caste system and casteist rituals and practices against women took a huge step forward.
Elsewhere too, galvanised by Gandhiji's call to join his satyagrahas, thousands of women were out on the streets in political action. Women's organisations were formed in different states. There were different trends within these movements and the newly formed organisations. Some organisations like the AIWC were in the main led by upper class and caste women on issues which linked India’s freedom with the demand for women’s equality in an independent India. However restricted the outlook may have been, objectively it helped focus attention on sex based discrimination against women. In 1934, the AIWC conference passed a resolution demanding a Hindu code that would remove discrimination against women in marriage and inheritance laws.
A growing and militant trend in the thirties and forties was in the formation of Women’s Self-Defence Leagues and Mahila Sanghams in several states led by communist women. These brave pioneers working among women of the economically and socially exploited classes, challenged the status quo at different levels, taking their inspiration from the great Bolshevik revolution under Lenin which on the morrow of the success of the revolution had abolished all unequal laws relating to women’s rights. Legendary communist revolutionaries like P Sundarayya, EMS Namboodiripad, AK Gopalan and others were also beating at the doors of the citadels of Hindu orthodoxy through anti-caste movements and for women’s freedom from casteist practices and rituals.
The RSS which was formed in 1926, had nothing to do with any of these democratic struggles. On the contrary, the RSS founding chief Dr KB Hedgewar believed it was the sacred duty of Hindu women leaders to preserve the Hindutva customs and cultures. In his inaugural address in 1936 at the Rashtriya Sevika Samity’s founding conference, he said “the aim of the samity is the awakening among women of Hindutva…to help Hindu rashtra progress..the ideal Hindu woman is one who imparts the samskaras which help preserve our dharma, culture and nation.”
While Dr Ambedkar was urging women to challenge and break down the caste based samskaras, the RSS was mobilising women to protect and defend caste based inequities and hierarchies.
In 1937, GV Deshmukh, a legislator elected from Maharashtra, introduced a Bill in the Federal Legislative Assembly on Hindu Women's Rights to Property. The Deshmukh Act as it was later called, though limited to a widow's right to a share of her son's property, had far reaching consequences. It was this Bill and the ensuing debate on its strengths and weaknesses which led to the appointment by the colonial government of a four member committee named after its chairman BN Rau. The first Rau Committee report in 1941 suggested codification of all Hindu laws. In 1944 the second Rau Committee was formed to actually draft a code which was to cover the issues of succession, marriage, divorce, maintenance, guardianship and adoption.
Before the report was finalized, the Rau Committee had toured most of the states and heard public representations on the Hindu Law reform proposals. There was a furious public debate, the main protagonists were the Hindu Mahasabha on the one hand and women’s organisations, groups and progressive minded individuals on the other. The issues hit at the heart of orthodoxy as it questioned issues considered “sacramental” to them. While matters like inheritance and succession were of main interest to women of the propertied classes, a much wider section of women stood to gain on the other issues such as rights within a marriage, the right to divorce, the right to maintenance and to guardianship, the assault on so-called caste purity and so on.
Hindu Mahasabha leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee worked in tandem with the RSS against the Bill. At that time the RSS Sarsanghchalak was Golwalkar. In an interview given to the press in Nangal, Punjab in March 1950, the text of which is reported on the website in his name, he clearly enunciated the RSS’s utterly retrograde views on reform within the Hindu samaj. He was opposed even to the Sharda Act against child marriage. His plea was that the Act was not implemented. If such an argument is to be accepted than all current laws for women and children can also be scrapped, since they too are not properly implemented. In answer to a question whether it proved beneficial he said “Did it?...Many things spring up in society as necessity arises” and then went on to defend polygamy, giving it as an example saying “weavers near Nagpur require hands to work for them, but cannot afford paid workers. Hence they feel polygamy is necessity for them.” This in fact was a response to Dr Ambedkar’s strong position to ensure monogamy as the norm in the reformed Hindu laws.
Wherever the Rau Committee travelled for public hearings there were demonstrations for and against the Bill, including physical attacks launched by opponents of the Bill. The right wing forces vilified, abused attacked women supporters of the Bill who gave evidence before the Committee. They were spat on in the streets and called filthy names. Yet they persevered. Renu Chakravorty, a popular communist woman leader, in her book on Communist Women in the Freedom Movement devotes a chapter to the big battle fought against the orthodoxy by women of all castes and creed in support of the Hindu Code Bill.
This then was the background to the momentous debate on Hindu law reforms. The clash between vastly differing ideologies during the acrimonious debate on the Hindu Code Bill in the Constituent Assembly and provisional parliament before the first general elections in 1952, were actually echoes and reflections of these struggles and developments outside parliament concerning fundamental issues of social, economic and political reform in which Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had played a leading role.
The Parliamentary Debate
The Hindu Code Bill as suggested by the Rau Committee was introduced in the House before partition in April 1947 by the then law minister Jogendra Nath Mandal, a member of the Scheduled castes and also a follower of Dr Ambedkar. After partition, it took a year, for it to be placed before the Constituent Assembly in April 1948. This was placed by Dr Ambedkar, as the first law minister in Nehru’s cabinet and then referred to a select committee which included him too.
The select committee report was presented to the house by Dr Ambedkar on August 12, 1948. He made a motion for consideration of the report on August 31. But such was the strong opposition to the very concept of reform, that even a motion for its consideration was not allowed. For seven days spread over a year, time was allotted for discussion not on the Bill itself but whether it should be at all considered. The battle lines were clearly drawn. It took another year, that is on December 19, 1949 for the motion of consideration to be passed. In the next year, for the whole of 1950 the Bill was not even placed on the agenda. The opponents were deliberately trying to delay the Bill as the final sessions of the provisional parliament were coming to a close with the first elections of independent India scheduled in mid-1952.
It finally came for discussion and adoption on February 5, 1951. In the course of that discussion, Prime Minister Nehru who had earlier stated that his government would fall or stand with the Bill, backed out and compromised in the face of the offensive of the right wing orthodoxy. He directed Dr Ambedkar to take up only those sections related to marriage and divorce leaving out the issues of succession and inheritance, in the name of there being lack of time.
FLAGGING THREE ISSUES:
AMBEDKAR VS HINDUTVA
Dr Ambedkar had no option but to accept. Within these sections, he identified three areas of controversy even in the diluted Bill (1) abolition of caste as a necessary requirement for a valid marriage (2) prescription of monogamy (3) permission for a woman to seek a divorce and maintenance.
He was so right. These points were the proverbial red rag to the raging bull. It was described in various ways by MPs. Some samples insisting on retaining caste as a condition for a valid marriage: “(it will lead to) the utter demolition of Hindu society”, (Bhargava); “Hindu society has been divided into groups (castes) not with any inhuman or malicious intent of injuring any section..traditions which have come down through the ages should be respected and upheld” (Malaviya); persons with similarities of habits and purity of temperament should dine together and marry together (for) individual and racial health and happiness.” (Bhatt)
On monogamy and marriage it was Shyama Prasad Mukherjee the man now considered their icon by BJP who led the charge. He repeated much of what was being written in the RSS weekly Organiser which ran a vicious campaign against Dr Ambedkar and the Hindu Code Bill, “condemn it because it is a cruel and ignorant libel on Hindu laws, Hindu culture and Hindu dharma.” Organiser said “we oppose the right to divorce revolting to Hindu ideology.’ Mukherjee repeated all this in parliament. “giving women the right to divorce was unacceptable”... “the sacramental nature of marriage is an ideology which lies deep rooted in the minds of millions of people.. it is the fundamental and sacred nature of Hindu marriage.” Dr Ambedkar pointed out that 90 percent of the shudras accepted a woman’s right to divorce in their custom and practice, in other words Dr Ambedkar was asking which Hindus was Mukherjee referring to. Throughout the history of social reform in India, it is Brahmanical ideologies and customs which have been imposed on believers as the norm. In this debate Dr Ambedkar challenged that. He also said “Sacramental marriage in as few words as possible is polygamy for the man and perpetual slavery for the wife.” Mukherjee had only this weak response to offer “those whose forefathers (upper castes) had proceeded in accordance with the age old traditions and who are no less patriotic than the sponsor of the Bill, don’t force it on them.”
Dr Ambedkar also challenged Mukherjee on his position on monogamy. The utter hypocrisy of the argument put forward by Mukherjee in defence of polygamy, was “if you cannot make monogamy applicable to all citizens of India do not do it for one section alone..” It was pointed out to him that provinces like Bombay, Baroda, Madras and also Travancore-Cochin had already adopted laws making monogamy the norm for Hindus. But this did not prevent Mukherjee from insisting on his amendment that it should either be optional or applicable to all.
Even more, the basic opposition to reform was linked by the Hindutva right-wing forces to the very concept of secularism. Mukherjee was the forerunner on this score. While pushing for his amendment he said “It is said that we are a secular State. In fact we suffer from a new disease which may be called secularitis because government is not willing to make it compulsory for all.”
Dr Ambedkar’s classic response could well be used today against the hypocritical RSS demand for a uniform civil code targeted at minorities, not for the welfare of women.
He said, “Now I must say I am very, very surprised to see some of those who until yesterday were the greatest opponents of this Code and the greatest champions of archaic Hindu laws should come forward and say that they are now prepared for an all India Civil Code. There is a proverb that a leopard does not change its spots and I cannot believe that those leopards which have been pouncing on this Bill every time it came before the House have now suddenly so reformed their mentality as to become revolutionary enough to accept a new code altogether.”
How true. The RSS opposition today to laws against domestic violence as being disruptive for the Hindu family, the efforts to dilute even a clause like 498A, the opposition to women working leaving their “primary duty as housewives,” the aggressive hostility against the rights of sexual minorities, and so on show that however loud the cry for a uniform civil code, “the leopard has not changed its spots.”
He went further in his arguments on the issue of personal laws which also are relevant today. He said “The constitution has Article 25. Profession of a particular religion comes with it the personal law of the person. When you say to a Muslim that under the constitution he is free to profess and practice his religion we are practically giving him the right to practice his personal law. In view (of this) there is nothing discriminatory in allowing one community to have their own law or to modify it in the way they like and to treat the law of another community differently.” He also argued that all sections of the Hindu communities were consulted and given the opportunity to express their opinion before bringing the Rau Committee report to parliament.
He gave the example of the Shariat Act 1937, moved by Jinnah in the legislature of undivided India. He said that it was not optional but compulsory. He thus emphasised a message that is very relevant today for those so-called representatives of minority communities who refuse to reform those laws which are highly discriminatory to women such as arbitrary practice of talaq. Dr Ambedkar said “I shall hear no argument from any community to say that this parliament has no right to interfere in the personal or any other law – the procedure and binding convention is that the people affected before any particular piece of legislation is undertaken must be consulted.”
It is also striking and of significance that his staunchest allies were the women MPs who, every single one of them, at different times and occasions, spoke strongly and passionately against the arguments of those who spoke in the name of religion and tradition to oppose the Bill during the discussions that stretched from 1948-1951. Some of their words resonate through these decades. Smt. Jayshree, member from Maharashtra answering Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s “religion in danger” comment asked, “I would ask him whether beating one’s own wife is considered to be religion. A learned judge in a court said that beating one’s own wife is allowed in Hindu law. So may I ask, can such cruel customs be called religion?” Renuka Ray sarcastically said in response to arguments of “tradition” ‘let us have the tyranny of the Brahmanical society for the next thousand years” Dakshanayee Velayudhan, one of the strongest dalit women’s voices at the time in the Assembly supported Dr Ambedkar strongly while demanding that equal attention be given to the rights of SC women. Padmaja Naidu, Sucheta Kriplani, Hansa Mehta, Ammu Swaminathan, Begum Aziza Rasul were some of the other strong voices.
NEHRU LET DOWN
Even as the debate threw up most far reaching issues which were responded to with hard hitting logic by Dr Ambedkar against the army of opponents, the Nehru government backed down. Threatened by the public admonition of the President Rajendra Prasad that he would send the Bill back, the prime minister at the fag end of the session, after the herculean battle fought by Dr Ambedkar and the supporters of the Bill, gave instructions to his law minister to drop the Bill.
Dr Ambedkar immediately resigned in protest. His resignation letter dated September 27, 1951 reveals the “greatest mental torture” he had to go through and details how the entire exercise was sabotaged. “I got the impression that the Prime Minister, although sincere, had not the earnestness and determination required to get the Hindu Code Bill through… I have never seen a case of a Chief Whip so disloyal to the Prime Minister and a Prime Minister so loyal to a disloyal whip…” and then “to leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul of Hindu society untouched and to go on passing legislation on economic issues is to build a castle on a dung heap…I must be true to myself and that can be only by going out..”
He became the first cabinet minister to resign on an issue concerning women’s equality and that remains a global record even today.
As for the reforms, they were buried till 1954. Between 1954-1956, four different much diluted Bills and clauses, on marriage, divorce, maintenance, guardianship and succession were adopted. In 2005 the Hindu Succession Act was further amended to make women an equal co-parcenary. Infirmities still remain in many of the laws. The work taken forward by Dr Ambedkar remains unfinished even today.
Women of India owe much to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. At a time when the RSS led BJP government is hell-bent in undermining the constitution and diluting fundamental rights of citizens, trying to impose their agenda of a Hindu rashtra, the lessons learnt during the debate on the Hindu Code Bill acquire an immediate relevance. The words of Dr Ambedkar “We are bound to examine every social institution that exists in the country and see whether it satisfies the principles laid down in the Constitution” has an urgency. His 125th birth anniversary provides an opportunity to reassert his legacy against the forces of Hindutva and for an end to the “slavery of women.”