Among his brilliant multi-faceted contributions to the building of a secular democratic India was his understanding of and his work against the subjugation of women in India. He drew its links with the system of Chaturvarna and stressed 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."
It was he as Law Minister in the Nehru cabinet who was tasked with piloting the Hindu reform laws through parliament. This was very soon after he had completed the Herculean task of getting the Constitution of India finally adopted.
He was attacked, reviled, abused by representatives of the Hindu orthodoxy in parliament in various political parties. At that time, even on the question of the limited reforms within Hindu laws suggested by Dr Ambedkar, the RSS and its ideologically affiliated leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, then a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, 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 then President of India Rajendra Prasad and then Minister for Home Affairs, Shri 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 and their retrograde views have everything in common, are two sides of the same coin.
It is worth revisiting the debates of the time because there are so many aspects that resonate through the years relevant to this day and time.
The "hot" topic of discussion today, as far as women's equal rights are concerned, is the issue of Muslim Personal law reform with particular reference to the ongoing case before the Supreme Court on the issue of instant and arbitrary triple talaq. The friends of yore, the Hindu and the Muslim fundamentalists who were united on the same side in their opposition to the Hindu law reform, are arraigned on opposite sides today. However, what remains unchanged and in fact similar to both sides, is that their positions for or against instant triple talaq are determined not out of concern for women's rights to equality, but by their own sectarian agendas. In the case of the RSS and company, it sees this as a step forward to the scrapping of Muslim Personal law altogether. As far as the Muslim fundamentalists are concerned, it is a case of protecting the most retrograde patriarchal practices in the name of religion.
Shamefully, other political parties have refused to take a firm position in support of Muslim women's demand for an end to this abhorrent practice, thus lending strength to the narrow agendas of both the RSS camp and that of the Muslim fundamentalists. A party like the Trinamool Congress has backed fundamentalists in the community, with their Muslim MPs taking the lead in slogans such as religion being in danger because of the proposed reform. The highly objectionable statements of the Muslim Personal Law Board, which are an affront to democratic rights of women, are taken to be representative of the community as a whole by these parties. In fact, many other Muslim institutions have condemned this practice but these opinions are ignored.
Such positions make women's rights hostage to political opportunism and affect women of all communities. Babasaheb had fought against such opportunism. He was equally forceful in his assertion that all practices have to be judged by the rights guaranteed by the constitution.
The main narrative of the BJP-led central government is that Muslim women have been discriminated against because they have not had the benefit of reforms, whereas Hindu women have had this advantage. It is assumed that the reform in Hindu laws is complete. This is far from the truth. There are still significant discriminations against Hindu women such as in guardianship laws, in property rights with women still being lower in the hierarchy of coparcenaries eligible to inherit ancestral property, Hindu women being discriminated in the right to agricultural land and so on. However, such reforms are not on the government's agenda precisely because their interest is not women's rights
What is required is a step by step reform in all personal laws while also strengthening the framework of secular laws that apply to all women. This is the way forward to achieve equal rights for all women within communities and also between communities.
But equally important to the promulgation of laws are their implementation. In the course of the debate on Hindu law reform, the issue of the implementation of the Sharda Act, which prohibits child marriage, came up. It was the contention of many of the anti-reform speakers that when the community did not accept a law, it was impossible to get it implemented. An example given was the non-implementation of the law against child marriages as it was held that this was in consonance with Hindu tradition.
This was enunciated earlier by the RSS Sarsanghchalak, Shri 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 expressed his opposition to the Sharda Act on grounds that it was not being implemented. In answer to a question on whether it proved beneficial, he said "Did it?..Many things spring up in society as necessity arises" and then went on to defend polygamy among Hindus, saying, "Weavers near Nagpur require hands to work for them, but cannot afford paid workers. Hence they feel polygamy is necessity for them." Later in the debate, those members of parliament allied to his ideology took the same position, opposing monogamy as the norm in the reformed Hindu laws.
At present, one of the most non-implemented laws is the Dowry Prohibition Act, even as dowry practices are rampant. It is mainly Hindu women who are victims of what are known as "dowry deaths." Often, cultural practices and traditions prevent women from walking out of a violent situation. The practice of Kanya Daan, an essential ritual in Hindu marriages, symbolizes the break expected from the young bride with her natal family. She is now the property of her husband and in laws, having been gifted to them. In fact, it is a most cruel tradition which breaks a girl's heart. She is expected to bear the torture and violence she may face, as she would otherwise be a burden to her family having broken the tradition of the Daan.
In the last ten years, according to the National Crimes Research Bureau, there have been on average 8,000 dowry deaths every year. Dowry death is defined by Sec 304 b of the Indian Penal Code as " Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called 'dowry death', and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death."
By religion, most of the 80,000 victims were Hindu women. Did a single Hindutva organization, now so vocal on the issue of Muslim women's rights, ever protest, ever campaign, ever come out against this barbarity? On the contrary, these organisations have been campaigning for dilution of the laws against domestic violence, describing them as a western concept against the ethos of "Hindu culture."
The evil practice of dowry has also spread to the Muslim community. Women's organisations running legal aid cells in areas inhabited by Muslims have ample evidence of the violence Muslim women face as a result of unfulfilled dowry demands. The Muslim Personal Law Board and other such organisations are well aware of this reality. Have they declared it to be against religion? Have they ever said such practices endanger their religion? On the contrary, women have rarely found any support from them on such issues.
It was this kind of hypocrisy that Ambedkar fought. When we remember him today, it is also important to take lessons from his courage to fight all kinds of fundamentalisms that threaten to overwhelm his legacy.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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