Debating India


Nehru And The Hindu Code Bill

Christophe Jaffrelot

Monday 18 August 2003, by JAFFRELOT*Christophe

Paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 18 ao?t 2003. Extrait du livre de Ch. Jaffrelot The Hindu National Movement and Indian Politics, 1925 To The 1990’s, p.104-106.

Secularism, in the Nehruvian context, does not mean the separation of religion from the state but rather benevolent neutrality towards all religions, which are treated equably.

However, this universalist position exists alongside effort to reduce the ascendancy of religion in society. The1950 Constitution strongly influenced by Nehru, did not recognize religious communities but only individuals, to whom it guaranteed in Article 25 ’freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’.

This ideal concept of religion as a private matter implied a reduction in its sphere of influence through the impact of state in its capacity as the agent of ’modernisation’. Nehru’s principal achievement in this voluntarist perspective was undoubtedly the Hindu Code Bill.

The Hindu Code Bill was intended to provide a civil code in place of the body of Hindu personal law, which had been amended to only a limited extent by the British authorities. The bill was presented to the Constituent Assembly on 9 April 1948 but it caused a great deal of controversy and was subsequently broke down to three more specialised bills which came before the Lok Sabha in its 1952-7 term. The Hindu Marriage Bill outlawed polygamy and contained provisions dealing with inter caste marriages and divorce procedures; the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Bill had as its main thrust the adoption of girls, which till then had been little practised; the Hindu Succession Bill placed daughters on the same footing as widows and sons where the inheritance of family property was concerned.

These bills aroused strong opposition from the Hindu nationalists. In Parliament N.C. Chatterjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, and S.P. Mokerjee protested vehemently against what they took to be a threat to file stability and integrity of traditional forms of marriage and the family in Hindu society. However, one of the most vehement critics of the government’s proposals was Swami Karpatriji, a sanyasi who belonged to the Dandis, one of the orders founded by Shankara. He had won respect for his knowledge of Sanskrit texts, his asceticism (he had spent long periods in solitude in the Himalayas) and for his skill as an orator. It was a measure of his authority that he had been involved in the selection of the four major Shankarachryas . In 1940 he had founded the Dharma Sangh (Association of Dharma), a cultural association for the defence of traditional Hinduism. In 1941 he founded a daily paper Sanmarg. After 1948 he turned towards politics and established the Ram Rajya Parishad (Council of the Kingdom of Ram) to serve as a political party. This body organised numerous demonstrations against the Hindu Code Bill; 15,000 people, including personalities such as the Princess of Dewas Senior (a former princely state in Central India), attended a week- long conference in Delhi at the beginning of 1949.

The Hindu nationalists, for their part, were particularly exasperated that the civil law reform concerned only Hindus, whereas the Constitution enjoined (in article 44 of the Directive Principles) the State to give India a uniform Civil Code: hence Mookerjee’s declaration that the "government did not dare to touch the Muslim community." Nehru’s secularism suffered here from a certain ambiguity or at least a lacuna, doubtless due to his concern to reassure the Muslims who had chosen to remain in India. He was prepared to condone the right of civil courts to apply Muslim personal law in cases affecting Muslims.

In his view, the majority community had duties towards the minorities. As S. Gopal points out: "He urged incessantly the importance of generous treatment of the minorities so that they would feel that they were Indians, and be completely at home.’ Such an attitude could be denounced as an anti-Hindu bias while the RSS later described it as ’pseudo-secularism’. In the early 1950s, however, the campaigns undertaken in this direction succeeded in having the Hindu Code Bill amended and the parliamentary vote delayed but failed to mobilise widespread support or even win that of the traditionalists in Congress. Rajendra Prasad, who was elected President of the Republic in 1950, was distressed by a project whose ’new concepts and new ideas?. are not only foreign to Hindu Law but may cause disruption in every family’. He argued that the proposal for reform should first be included in the party’s election manifesto and placed before the voters before any discussion in Parliament.

Nehru had to make many concessions to the bill’s critics, including Rajendra Prasad. Although the bills which were adopted by the new Parliament in the mid-1950s were thus less far-reaching in scope than Nehru had originally intended, they were a solid testimony to his ability to impose his views on others and to defy the Hindu traditionalists.

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