Before the debate over a Uniform Civil Code for Muslims, there was a similar row over the enactment of a law to codify Hindu personal law in India. The Hindu Code Bills, established chiefly by BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, pioneered reforms that are taken for granted today: among them the right to divorce, equal rights for women to inherit property and the abolition of polygamy.
Before the Bills were finally passed in the 1950s, there was more than a decade of revisions, leading up to dramatic scenes in the Constituent Assembly. As is the case with the codification of Muslim personal law today, the Hindu Code Bills were met with stubborn resistance from various sections over their perceived interference with religious matters.
The seed for the codification of Hindu religious laws was sown during British rule. A four-member committee set up in 1941 and headed by BN Rau proposed a draft code, which was later amended and etched out by Law Minister Ambedkar, with a thrust towards breaking down the caste system and giving more rights to women. However, the Hindu Code Bill met with vehement opposition in Parliament and its passage was deferred multiple times. Among its staunch opponents were religious leaders, members of the Hindu right and even sections within the Congress. The bills were forced to be amended and watered down, but after they repeatedly failed to pass through Parliament, Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet in September 1951. In his
resignation speech, Ambedkar indicated that he had not felt adequately supported by Nehru in his quest to get the Bill passed. Nehru, according to historical accounts, had been advised to defer the bills till the 1951 elections, the first in Independent India, were concluded.
After the Congress stormed to power in that election, Nehru set about getting the Bills passed. He split them up into four parts, ostensibly to make it easier to win Parliaments approval. Consequently, Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act were passed between 1952 and 1956.
This period of turmoil and Ambedkar’s tireless efforts to push through reform despite overwhelming opposition were captured by political cartoonists at the time. On Tuesday, Twitter user Advaid dug up these works of art from the reams of history and shared them on the social media platform. At a time when the Hindu Right leads the country, and the BJP has consistently invoked Ambedkar’s legacy and has positioned itself as a champion for Muslim women’s rights as an advocate of the Uniform Civil Code, the cartoons are a satire-infused reminder of a time when the tables were turned. Advaid said multiple reports of vandalism of Ambedkar statues in the country prompted him to dig up memories of the leader’s struggles in getting the Hindu Code Bills passed, just one of the reformer’s many contributions to modern Indian society.