The furore over the Shah Bano--er, Imrana case continued this week, but the volume has already been tuned down and the issue looks likely to fade away without causing much political fallout. The most interesting facet of this and similar cases, to my mind, is that they illustrate the difference between the Indian and American ideals of secularism. In India, the secularism promoted by Nehru in the fifties and alive and kicking today is essentially what US ideologues christened multiculturalism in the 1990s, spawning the unpleasant, Orwellian-sounding, much maligned ideology of "political correctness." Across US campuses (I was a student then), debates went long into the night over an apparent conflict between this multiculturalism, which said that each group ought to have the right to make its own rules, and feminism, which advocated a set of inalienable rights for women. The most intelligent solution that I heard came from a Muslim woman and staunch feminist activist from the Middle East. Multiculturalism as it was naively conceived, she proposed, implied that the cultures it sought to protect had uniform, monolithic belief systems, when in fact every culture supports a wide range of different ideals, whether closeted or visible.
This is where Indian politicians--for the selfish reason that their main goal, like all politicians, is winning re-election--have gone wrong. The continued support of the Muslim, Hindu and Christian civil codes, all of which have provisions that deny essential equal rights to women, is predicated on the belief that each of India's three major cultures is static, unyielding, and uniformly committed to its core ideals. There's a very real reason that Muslims may fear the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code. That code is all too likely to read a lot like the Hindu personal law, erasing a valuable symbol of India's tolerance of differing belief systems. However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done. There must be limits to "tolerance." Taken to extremes, multiculturalism would accept the racism of the Ku Klux Klan as an intrinsic part of southern American culture, or even allow the Nazi theory of Aryan supremacy to go uncriticized as part of German culture. In both those cases, the force of law and of arms was needed to ensure that a poisonous subset of a culture's core beliefs did not dominate the others. Few reasonable people would deny that action, though extreme, was right.
In contrast, India's politicians and religious leaders need do little that is radical to turn society (at least as governed by the law) away from fundamentalism. First, the Hindu and Christian civil codes must be amended so that they are devoid of those elements of their foundation religions that violate the rights of women or other groups. (The critical point is that Hindus must show that they are willing to accept a legal code based on common assumptions about human rights, rather than ancient religious codes, but because Christians seem to perceive less threat in a uniform civil code than Muslim groups, I'm lumping Hindus and Christians together). Then, greater effort needs to be made to identify leaders who recognize the limitations of a rigid interpretation of rules codified for a society that existed a thousand years ago on a distant continent. Obviously, in democracy, the people must choose their own advocates, but I fear that too little introspection has gone into the ways in which India's current set of rules--along with resentment of the Congress Party's long dominance--actually contrives to make India more fundamentalist. Why do the clerics of the Muslim Law Board have so much say in the fate of India's Muslim women, and someone like Seema Mustafa so little? At the same time, the knickerwallas pay lip service to the idea of a uniform civil code with the intention that India's population should accept a Hindu cultural identity, whatever their religion. That's not what I'm advocating here. Hindu inheritance laws are as aberrant as Muslim divorce laws, as any visit to Varanasi will testify. And even judges in India's "secular" courts have been known to consider marriage a reasonable penance for rape.
Perhaps the problem is that we treat fundamentalists with too much gravity--for their hatred is terrifying--and thus too much respect. Groups like the RSS and VHP, if they cannot be banned (OK, I have to accept they cannot be banned), should be mocked, exposed to the ridicule they have so clearly earned with their ridiculous boy scout uniforms and foam-mouthed insanity. Where are India's great satirists? NDTV's puppet show, neither vicious enough nor funny enough, ain't cutting it.
In America, women burned bras to put an end to this kind of thing, and achieved a bit of success. Perhaps here we all--men included--need to jump into navel-exposing tube tops, dangerously low-rise jeans and dangerously short skirts and band together on Pragati Maidan to shout the slogan most-certain to terrify the country's most avowed opponents of secularism: I want my MTV!