Wednesday, July 28, 2010

State, Religion, And Social Reforms

By Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer
No one will dispute the fact that social reforms are urgently needed with breath taking changes taking place all around in our society. But two questions become important in this respect: 1) what is the role of state and 2) what is the role of religion? There are people who insist that state should play an active role and usher in these reforms. Secondly there are people who think religion can hardly be helpful and instead it becomes an obstacle in social change.

Those who demand active role of the state could either be politically motivated or may feel state as an agency is a powerful enough to bring needed reforms. Also, it depends whether state is authoritarian in nature of democratic. If the state is authoritarian and the ruler, even if enlightened enough to bring about change, cannot succeed in its mission. There are several examples before us.

The Afghan king Amanullah was an enlightened ruler and tried to enforce modern reforms in Afghan society in late twenties and early thirties of the last century in an extremely conservative tribal society. He invited rebellion and lost his throne. Of course British colonialists also played their role in dethroning him. The other example is of the Shah of Iran. He also tried to force people to accept modern reforms and invited ire of Ayatullahs on one hand, and conservative peasantry, on the other. He also lost his throne though there were several other factors including acting as an American stooge in Middle East and exiling Ayatullah Khomeini and some other factors.

The democratic state, on the other hand, has to keep religious sensitivities of voters in mind. Also, there may be, and often there are, contradictory political pressures to be encountered. A section of enlightened liberal Hindu leadership led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, for example, drafted the Hindu code Bill after independence to bring about urgently needed social reforms in the Hindu Law but had to withdraw it in the face of stiff opposition from orthodox Hindus and water it down considerably. Dr. Ambedkar had to resign as a law minister in frustration. Even Nehru’s political charisma did not help.

The BJP, the Hindu Right Party has implementation of Common Civil Code as part of its Hindutva Agenda and tried its best to create majoritarian ethos around it but did not succeed except among urban middle class and it was precisely for this reason that though it led NDA coalition for six years but could not bring in common civil code which was its own agenda. Thus in a democratic state too there are obvious constraints in bringing about social reform.
The state can only actively intervene where customary law involves human life and law and order problem. For example the British outlawed sati though it was the Hindu customary law as human life was involved. Recently, instances of honour killings (or dishonorable killings?) are surfacing and though customary law may not permit marriage within gotra or in other castes but no one has right to take any ones life and hence state has to intervene and legislate against such shameful killings..........more


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