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February 15, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Sonia Gandhi's march to history

Sonia Gandhi led a march to the prime minister's house the other day and created history of a kind. Leading a bunch of her sycophants in protest against the "saffronisation" of the bureaucracy recently permitted by the Gujarat BJP government, she was "arrested" by the police. Though she was released just half a minute later, the event was enough for some newspapers to declare it as history; the madam, they proclaimed, was the first Congress president to be "arrested" since 1947. Wow!

And now, if Sonia Gandhi's various advisers have been reading the newspapers, the madam has the rare opportunity to follow up on that historic march in Delhi by strutting straight into the golden Guinness Book of Records. She has the chance to become the first woman from India, probably the first woman in the world, to lead a protest march to…the United Nations headquarters, no less!

That opportunity lies in a detailed report by Pamela Philipose in The Indian Express, of January 28, 2000. That report by a senior professional journalist should be provocation enough for Madam Gandhi to take the giant leap in political history. It should inspire Soniaji to quickly fly to New York to stage a "dharna" before the mighty UN for forsaking the sacred "secularism" of India and instead advocating our nation to embrace the uniform civil code --the same one that's been dubbed for decades as being "communal" and "fascist" by the "secularists" of our unfortunate land.

Yes, yes, it is true. Ms Philipose wrote from New York on January 27 that the Indian delegation presenting its Initial Report that day to the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination against Women was rapped on the knuckles for India not keeping its promise in Article 16.2 of what is considered to be the most important international treaty that governs women's rights and which India ratified in June 1993.

That Article 16.2 of CEDAW calls for gender equality within marriage. During its presentation to the 23-member UN committee, India's official position, writes Ms Philipose, was that it would abide by Article 16.2 'in conformity with its policy of non-interference in the personal affairs of any community without its initiative and consent.' It was this stand of our government's seven-member delegation that nettled and upset the august UN body. The rebuffs and hectoring that that body administered to our representatives were:

1. The tendency to leave reform to communities could become a sanction for keeping things the way they are. "This is not only incompatible with the rights of women but represents a breach of principles of the Convention." (This from one Ms Feride Acar, the rapporteur of the session that historic day in the UN.)

2. An enacted civil code need not nullify community law. India should go ahead and enact a secular family law while allowing various communities the choice of whether they wish to be ruled by it or not. (This from Ms Savitri Goomesekere, a vice-chancellor from Sri Lanka.)

3. India should take a cue from Islamic nations like Bangladesh, which have introduced wide-ranging reforms in family law. (This from Ms Salma Khan, a former senior bureaucrat of Bangladesh.)

Now, now, the above unsolicited remarks should serve as a gigantic red rag to our "secular" community and should positively enrage Sonia Gandhi as well as her Congress party. "How dare the UN tell India to enact a Uniform Civil Code?" her acolytes will convince her. The UN's suggestion/advice/admonition --- call it what you will --- is an insult to "Mera Bharat mahaan" her advisers will brief her. Her attendants will add that what the UN is saying is also positively a sacrilege of what the Congress and its "great " leaders from Nehru downward have stood for and practised/imposed so assiduously for half a century. She will be told that it is also a sacrilege for the Communists in all shades of red, for the diverse Dravidian divisions, for the several Samajwadi sects, for the Muslim League of Jinnah's Indian heirs, and for all the rest excepting the saffronised sangh parivar, barbaric and uncivilised as it is.

Yes, the consensus among our secularists will be that the UN's attitude is sacrilege, so horrendous that it behoves a Sonia Gandhi march of protest down First Avenue culminating bang in front of UN Plaza in New York City.

To catch that moment of history live for millions on the idiot box and preserve it for posterity, spot interviews, discussions and all, Soniaji will do well to take along with her the elite Star TV crew that is as secular as, if not more than, the Congress party itself. She can rely on them, for as their ad tells us daily, they rely on experience.

While Mani Shankar Aiyar can pen the catchy slogans for the protest march placards and banners -- the man has such felicity with words -- and Natwar Singh can advise Madam Gandhi on how protests are conducted in external affairs, P Shiv Shanker and Pranab Mukherjee can prepare the detailed memorandum to be presented to the secretary-general of the UN and to each member of the UN Security Council.

Though Shiv Shanker and Mukherjee may well possess the erudition to draft a solid memorandum opposing a Uniform Civil Code for India, below are just a couple of friendly tips on sources they can tap before submitting their text for Madam's approval.

First is the fact that Muslim members in the Constituent Assembly asserted that enacting a common civil code would be tyrannical to the minorities. The uniform civil code projected as a Directive Principle of State Policy in our draft Constitution was sought to be amended by Mohammed Ismail Saheb, by Naziruddin Ahmed, by Mahboob Ali Baig and by Sahib Bahadur -- all wise and honourable men, surely?

Secondly, there are the contemporary views of Asghar Ali Engineer who has been accepted by those leading 'secular' English language newspapers in India as a reformist Muslim non-pareil. In the introduction to a book on problems of Muslim women in India, Engineer avers: 'Religion per se cannot be blamed for the inferior status to women. Religion itself is the end product of patriarchal society and so is male domination. So unless patriarchal values and patriarchal structures are dispensed with, the male attitude towards women will continue to be one of domination.' Engineer goes on to proclaim that, 'Even the communist system failed to do away with patriarchy. Similarly, in the advanced Western countries ordination for women remains an unresolved issue. The issue of abortion is also in the eye of a storm and Roman Catholics are opposing it the world over.'

Engineer also considers the Muslim Personal Law as a question of Muslim identity in India, and, therefore, so sacred that it cannot brook even a shadow to be cast on it by any other code. He says that 'Many Muslims, perhaps lakhs, who joined the Shah Bano movement (opposing the Indian Supreme Court's judgement of April 1985 granting right to maintenance for life to that poor old divorced woman) were more concerned with their Islamic identity than immutability of divine law.'

So there's the package waiting to be thrown by Sonia Gandhi at the "saffronised" United Nations. And recognising the truly global composition of the UN, Madam would be well-advised to deliver her vocal attack on the UN in Italian, English, Hindi and Spanish, with scores of men and women from her party cheering her all the way. It will certainly be Madam's most memorable march yet into history -- world history.

There's one problem though in this first dreamlike march of the 21st century. With just a few clicks of the Internet mouse, the UN blokes will be able to download the fundamental truths pronounced by our Constitution framers, by our humane judiciary and by some of our women activists, none of them of the saffron hue. Above all, the UN will learn of the views of a Muslim who was a jurist, a gentleman, a humanist and a Congress minister combined. And the gaps, if any, in the UN's knowledge will, of course, be filled by those hundreds of BJP's friends in New York who will surely be present during Madam's march.

So sound already are the UN's "saffronised" views that Sonia Gandhi's march to UN Plaza could turn out to be disastrous for the Congress in the ultimate outcome. But even if that happens, Madam will have inexorably entered the history book -- after all, that's what those half-minute arrests are meant to be, aren't they?

Next Week: Why a "Saffron" Civil Code will get UN support

Arvind Lavakare

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