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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Don't let the Uniform Civil Code scuttle triple talaq reform

By Swapan Dasgupta

Much more than the cross-LoC raids on terrorist staging posts, the winter session of Parliament is likely to be dominated by the contentious subject of Muslim personal laws. While politicians are a little wary of wading into a subject that is before the Supreme Court, a proxy war is in the offing over a Uniform Civil Code for India.

The Law Commission, whose role is purely advisory, has begun consultations on a theme that finds mention in the Directive Principles of the Constitution but has never been acted on. This in turn has provoked protests by Muslim organisations, including the Muslim Personal Law Board. Following the Union Government’s affidavit in the triple talaq case and the Prime Minister’s intervention on the matter, there is a feeling that the proposed reform of Muslim divorce procedures is the thin end of the wedge. Despite Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s clarification, Muslim groups—alas, very male dominated—believe that the BJP is set to act on its long-standing commitment to a UCC.

That the outlawing of triple talaq is certain to be a feature of any future UCC is undeniable. The belief in common personal laws is centred on two planks. First, there is the belief that all citizens must be governed by the same laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. These laws in turn must be based on contemporary values that ensure equity and gender justice. Secondly, the advocacy of a UCC proceeds on the belief that religion involves the relationship between an individual and his/her God and that modification of custom doesn’t constitute a challenge to faith or religious identities. India is unlikely to ever accept, say, French secular traditions that even frowns upon the outward trappings of religious identity. A UCC, for example, may insist on the registration of marriages (and the laws governing divorce) but it will not dictate the rites and rituals of the ceremony itself. Muslims in Europe and North America haven’t lost their faith simply because they are governed by laws applicable to all citizens. And even in India, Muslims are governed by common criminal laws and not those stipulated in the Sharia.

In any case, the formulation of a UCC for India is still a long way off. The Law Commission may have begun preliminary consultations on the subject but the exercise of reconciling different personal laws of the various communities is certain to be an elaborate affair and must be accompanied by a large measure of consultation, persuasion and accommodation. To suggest that the Narendra Modi government is intent on ramming a hastily prepared UCC down the throats of all Indians before the 2019 election is at best needless alarmist and at worst governed by a polarising political agenda.

It would seem that there is an attempt to deflect attention from the real issue: the morality of triple talaq in a contemporary society. In the Shah Bano case of 1985-86, the Supreme Court offended Muslim orthodoxy by sanctioning alimony payment to a divorced Muslim woman. At that time, the Rajiv Gandhi government caved in to political pressure and enacted a regressive law that overturned the judgment. Since then, the courts have corrected other iniquitous practices such as the denial of prayer rights to women at Hindu and Muslim shrines. These judgments, fortunately, have been respected.

If there is now a growing body of legal precedence upholding gender equity, it is possible that the triple talaq system may be struck down by the Supreme Court. On this limited matter—as well on the right of Muslims to have multiple wives concurrently—there appears to be a loose consensus favouring reform. Moreover, in view of the grave perversion of triple talaq, there is a gender divide that implicitly challenges the right of theologians to speak on behalf of all Muslims and pronounce that Islam is in danger because women have been given marital rights. No wonder these custodians of faith are attempting to enlarge the battle and ensure community solidarity on an issue over which there is neither information nor consensus. Ironically, by waving the UCC flag quite mindlessly, the BJP’s over-zealous supporters are falling into the trap.

The coming months are certain to see much huffing and puffing over a UCC. No doubt some of the debate will be educative but there is also a danger that it could produce a contrived polarisation, and derail attempts to put an to a practice that denies a large number of Indian women dignity and justice.

Sunday Times of India, October 30, 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

HRD mantri’s real job is not fire-fighting, it’s education

By Swapan Dasgupta in Right & Wrong | India | TOI

It is a measure of the frivolity that has gripped the commentariat that the only discussions on last week’s ministerial reshuffle were centred on Smriti Irani’s shift from the HRD ministry to the sedate ministry of textiles. No doubt Irani may have contributed to the trivialisation with her characteristic forthrightness and her needless battles with detractors on social media. In the process, however, the country experienced an unfortunate shift of the national discourse away from education — a subject that, along with economic growth, must be high in the list of national priorities.

Even the controversies that marked her two-year stint in Shastri Bhavan had, alas, very little to do with the real issues. The student agitations at the Central University in Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University were all about campus politics and not remotely connected with scholarly pursuits. On top of her refusal to be browbeaten by voluble slogan-shouters, Irani riled the academic community — a difficult body at the best of times — with her no-nonsense style. Irani, an accomplished communicator whose parliamentary interventions on matters connected to her large ministry were exemplary, loathed being patronised by the academic community and responded with a show of exaggerated abrasiveness that complicated matters. Her legion of detractors may gloat over her apparent ‘demotion’ but her political career is far from over. A focused individual, she is certain to bounce back.

Many of the irritants that Irani faced in the HRD ministry may not be faced by her successor, Prakash Javadekar. The ever-smiling and affable Javadekar has a knack for negotiating his way out of sticky situations. In combining diligence and pragmatism, he was successful in extricating the ministry of environment from the controversies that marred the tenure of his predecessors. As his initial response to queries about student belligerence suggested, Javadekar has a way of projecting himself as a model of reasonableness. The anti-Narendra Modi brigade on the campuses may find that the new minister is more artful in negotiating contrived controversies.

Yet, coping with the HRD ministry is not merely about fire-fighting. Indian education, as the recently released National Policy on Education Report 2016 (NPER) has convincingly argued, is in a state of “disarray”. Having coped with the pressing issue of battling illiteracy and providing access to education, India’s education system is faced with the more challenging issues of poor standards, teacher indifference, pedagogic shortcomings and dysfunctional monitoring institutions.

Endorsing a survey by Pratham for 2014, the NPER noted with alarm that nearly half the Class V students were unable to reach the reading and arithmetic levels stipulated for Class II. The shoddy standards in this government-dominated sector also persist (with exceptions) in higher education. In a sharply worded indictment the NPER commented that “anyone having dealings with the education system has generally lost faith in its credibility…(Those) who can afford to turn their backs on government schools and colleges reach out to private schools or emigrate abroad for study.” Nor does the private sector constitute islands of uniform excellence. Here, too, degree shops and money-grabbing enterprises rub shoulders with institutions trying to make the best of a grim situation.

The NPER report may not be perfect — academic administrators have already begun rubbishing it on the ground it was drafted by a committee of retired babus. Yet, it does alert us to the magnitude of the problem and sets out a programme of modest reforms that, if left unattended, has the potential of transforming India’s demographic dividend into a horrible nightmare.

Javadekar has his work cut out for him. In the environment ministry, he moved away from the doctrinaire and occasionally vindictive approach of his predecessors. Now he has to cut himself loose from the culture of overbearing, bureaucratic controls and initiate steps to make education less prone to political interference, more flexible, and create purposeful and professional self-regulating institutions. Most important, he has to have the large-heartedness to permit genuine centres of excellence to be entirely self-governing.

The challenges before Javadekar are daunting. Not only will he have to persuade state governments that there is more to politics than the transfers and postings of government teachers, he will have to scrap moribund institutions such as the University Grants Commission, give a more purposeful role to the private (and corporate) sector and be more receptive to foreign participation in higher education. For Javadekar and, indeed, for Prime Minister Modi these campaigns should be more of a priority than tackling acts of puerile grandstanding on the campuses.

Sunday Times of India, July 10, 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Implications of an imploding Trump campaign

By Swapan Dasgupta

Not unexpectedly, the world shares an obsessive preoccupation with the US presidential election. Many people, particularly those who have internalised the American way of life as their own, take sides and often seem far more engaged than those who will actually vote to select the new occupant of the White House. 

It has been no different this year, but with one difference: the outcome of the election seems a bit too predictable. Barring an absolute political miracle that will put pollsters permanently out of business and transform Facebook into a wailing wall, it seems certain that Hilary Clinton is heading for a resounding win. Some say that it could be a win that, in terms of electoral votes, could equal President Richard Nixon’s victory over George McGovern in 1972. But just as Senator McGovern commanded a significant measure of support from the uber liberal community across the world, Donald Trump also has his vocal support base. 

However, while there is something historic in the fact that Hilary Clinton will be the first woman president of the US, her likely win will be less her personal triumph. It is generally agreed, even by those who will make the effort to actually vote, that the Democratic nominee is not inspirational (unlike President Obama or even Bill Clinton) but quite wooden. In addition, there is much in her past record to suggest that she is often unable to make a distinction between personal interests and public office. A different Republican nominee would have ensured that her victory in November was by no means assured. 

However, much more than the shortcomings of Trump, the transformation of the race in the final month of the campaign into a one-horse contest owes almost entirely to the media. When Hilary is sworn-in on a wintry January morning next year, she must ensure that there is a special enclosure for the media that ensured the transformation of Trump from an angry rebel to a crude misogynist. The relentless enthusiasm with which it broadcast Trump’s ‘locker room’ profanities and subsequently embroidered those with even more ‘grope’ tales ensured that the Republican campaign imploded. It was theoretically possible to create a moral equivalence centred on the misdemeanours of both candidates. Trump has a sordid record as a private citizen and Hilary’s record in public office does not bear exacting scrutiny. However, by literally thrusting the wooden stake into Trump’s nether region, while underplaying Hilary’s dodgy record, the mainstream media tilted the balance quite decisively against the Republicans. In particular, the press and TV channels ensured that Trump approached the election having incurred the displeasure of all women—of all colour and all political persuasion. It was theoretically possible for Trump to win on the strength of the White vote alone, but not with White women also deserting him. And that late swing was entirely a media creation. 

There are serious implications of a Trump defeat. Trump was probably the first example of a non-politician, with robust views but no clear political identification, actually prevailing over the Republican establishment. This has not happened before and nor do I suspect will it happen in the foreseeable future if the Trump campaign implodes. At the same time, the likelihood of established political leaders who have cut their teeth in conventional politics actually internalising populist disruption, shouldn’t be discounted. In France, to take a Western example, the unlikely possibility of National Front leader Marine Le Pen actually ever winning a presidential election has prompted former President Nicolas Sarkozy to appropriate the populist plank and blend it with a more conventional personality. In Hungary, the resounding anti-immigration verdict of the recent referendum points to the Establishment itself embracing populism.

In hindsight, what was wrong with Trump was not what he was advocating. Controlling immigration, reviewing multilateral trade pacts and stepping away from America’s role as the global policeman are themes that resonate throughout the US and constitutes a legitimate anti-Establishment plank. However, the chances of disruptive politics actually succeeding is diminished if it is apparent—as it was in the case of Trump—that the person championing it is not emotionally all there. 

I don’t believe that Trump’s defeat will signal the end of a viable anti-Establishment populism. All over Europe populism is growing as a response to an uncaring cosmopolitan elite that seems to disregard those frightened or left behind by economic or demographic changes. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May is building a new conservatism that leans more on the nationalism of the far-Right and the class resentment of the Left. I don’t believe that May necessarily believes in what she has said is her policy thrust. She is merely responding to what she sees are political opportunities. 

It is more than likely that Hilary Clinton will either try and forge a rainbow coalition based on identity politics or, if she is clever, try and incorporate elements of Trumpism into her presidency. Either way her ride will be choppy. And that is because Trump has demonstrated that the bipartisan Coca Cola-Pepsi Cola consensus that defined US politics for long is now breaking down—irretrievably. It took a maverick such as Trump to lay bare the new faultlines. Alas, he didn’t have the polish and communication skills of Ronald Reagan to convert it into a winning platform. Trump is over but the themes of his campaign will haunt the US for much longer. 
Sunday Pioneed, November 16, 2016