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.


If in such cases state does not intervene more lives are likely to be lost and hence state intervention is a must. But all cases of social reforms do not fall in this category and therefore, need very careful and sensitive handling. There is question of gender justice, for example. Now there are age–old customs and traditions in this respect and what is more problematic is that it is treated as part of religion.


Thus in the field of social reform there are two aspects: one, those reforms which pertain to purely social matters likes dowry, social boycott or ex-communication and similar other problems and those which are thought to be part of ones religion like personal laws involving marriage, divorce etc. There are problems pertaining to certain grey areas as well like observing purdah or dress code which some treat as religious and some as purely socio-cultural but nevertheless quite sensitive.


Can state lay down any dress code? Whenever this has happened state has not succeeded. As already referred to, King Amanullah of Afghanistan and Shah of Iran miserably failed in abolishing purdah. And the latest example is of burqa controversy in Europe. France is trying to legislate against burqa and Belgium has already banned it. But human rights organizations and activists have raised serious objections to such a ban and European Parliamentary Committee on Human rights has recently declared it as illegal.


What to wear and what not to wear must be an individual decision. Of course it is not always so and women come under severe social pressure to do so but many also wear for identity reasons or as a cultural practice. It is hard to determine. Some action could be taken only if it is proved that she is being pressured or threatened but certainly cannot be banned. Also, if burqa is banned who will bear the brunt? Of course the woman who wears it. On one hand, she is being pressured to wear it and on the other if she wears it she will be fined or jailed. Is it fair? Both ways she has to suffer.


It would be appropriate here to throw some light here on the causes of resistance to change. When the modern era began in nineteenth century, rationalism seem to be triumphant and the educated elite benefited most from it and hence it thought religion and traditions had its day and now science will have its day. But this educated elite had a very narrow social base and society at large in India and other backward countries, continued to be quite backward and traditional.


Also, the process of change was complex. On one hand modernity brought technological change and on the other, changes in approach to social and traditional issues which included gender issues. There was hardly any resistance to technological change as it benefited much larger sections of society. Railways, cars, clocks, radio, television, computers and now mobiles were accepted as part of life and after initial resistance even ultra-orthodox priesthood began to use these tools to perpetrate their orthodoxy.


Today computers are being used by orthodox priesthood to spread their ideas and they have set up their own websites and telephones and mobiles are being used for marriage and divorce. Once priesthood even resisted railways in England thinking that rapid transportation would be misused by students and others to travel to cities to drink and gamble. However, today orthodox priests use jets and planes to fly to most parts of the world. What is thought to be beneficial is readily accepted.


But when it comes to issues like marriage, divorce, individual choices, freedom to act, gender justice there is great resistance and even fierce opposition. It becomes for them ‘threat to religion’ as instead of benefiting it threatens their leadership and domination. And due to mass poverty and illiteracy they wield great influence. The poverty ridden masses are mired in these age-old traditions and can hardly benefit from such changes. On the contrary, they feel their customary and traditional practices are being tempered with and hence any change becomes very difficult and state becomes totally helpless in these matters.


Thus religion and social change become intertwined in a negative way and perception that religion is an obstacle for social change appears to be ‘correct’ to social elite. However, here too relationship is more complex than it appears. Religious text can also become a resource for change, if handled sensitively and creatively. One does not have to accept the prevalent interpretations and monopoly of priesthood.


These interpretations can be creatively contested and new interpretations and alternative understanding can be evolved. This is what Raja Rammohan Roy did while challenging the practice of sati. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan re-interpreted Qur’an to persuade Muslims to go for modern education and scientific outlook. He coined a phrase that word of God (i.e. Qur’an) cannot contradict work of God (i.e. his creation that is universe) and science is nothing but systematic study of work of God.


Similarly, in matters of gender justice several reformers in all religious communities used religious text as a rich resource to bring about change. Among Muslims several scholars like Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan in India and Muhammad Abduh and others in Egypt developed alternate interpretations of Qur’an and hadith to give women their due.


However, two challenges remain in all these countries; mass poverty and illiteracy and narrow base on which reformists usually work. The base can be widened only if education and awareness increases. Thus state, instead of legislating in these areas, if concentrates on eradicating poverty and illiteracy and civil society concentrates on creating awareness for change among people, it can prove very useful combination.


However, it is easier said than done. There are powerful vested interests who resist change. On one hand, we have economic elite who feel threatened if serious attempts are made to eradicate poverty as it brings about re-distribution of resources and more taxes and state intervention and religious elite who feel threatened with increased awareness among masses.


This is not to say no change is possible but only to point out what lies in store for reformists and what tremendous challenges they will have to face. Only hope, faith patience and proper strategies will help.

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