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For Indian bishop, a uniform civil code should not be used to impose Hinduism on minorities

When the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected to power in India last month, some have raised concerns with how the party will respond to religious minorities, many of which already experience persecution in the predominantly Hindu country. The following interview with an Indian bishop shows both the cautious hope and concerns for religious harmony of Christians and other religious minorities in India.

By Nirmala Carvalho

6/24/2014 India (AsiaNews) – …Mgr Dabre Thomas, archbishop of Pune… who is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke to AsiaNews about a proposal from the new government to unify under a single civil code of conduct all the laws that regulate personal issues in the various religious communities.

The BJP’s election manifesto mentioned a Uniform Civil Code to protect “gender justice.” How do you respond to this proposal?

The issue of a Uniform Civil Code, which relates to the personal law of minority communities – Muslims in particular – is a very delicate one.

On the one hand, it seems sensible to have a civil code or a single code of conduct for everyone to follow. On the other hand, it is true that India is not mono-cultural. India is a multi-cultural society with a variety of cultures and religions.

For this reason, it would be wrong to impose Hindu culture on all Indians in the form of a Uniform Civil Code. Each religious community has its own ethos, religion, traditions and cultural ways of relating to men and women. So this is very delicate and complex, which can only be managed through dialogue.

There should not be a fundamentalist or authoritarian approach in passing the bill in Parliament. I do not support the idea that Parliament can alone take this type of step… Many others should be part of it: philosophers, sociologists, cultural experts and religious leaders… The government should not be blindly indifferent to legitimate and rooted differences. It is urgent that the government show sensitivity towards cultural and religious diversity.

The BJP wants to use the law to create social equality… Before the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code, we need dialogue. Without it, tensions will arise in the country.

Are you concerned that the agenda of the BJP government could erase the country’s cultural pluralism by imposing a single cultural model?

At present, I am keeping an open mind towards the BJP government… I think we should give it a chance to lead the country.

However, a majority government does not mean a government of the majority religion. I suggest the government proceed with caution when dealing with issues that affect minorities, because there is already a sense of uncertainty and anxiety among them, which is based on past experiences and events.

The BJP dismisses the secular approach taken by the government so far as phoney. Are minorities concerned about the type of secularism the BJP wants to implement?

As long as the BJP manifesto includes a plan to abolish Kashmir’s special status, impose a Uniform Civil Code for the country and promote a [Hindu] temple in Ajodhya, minorities are justified to feel a sense of insecurity and concern. I think this government should allow minorities to feel safe, and ensure that their religious rights are not affected. Such a guarantee is needed to create trust in minorities.

Do you have any doubts about the Uniform Civil Code?

In India, there are different set of laws for different communities pertaining to personal matters like marriage, divorce, property, adoption, inheritance and maintenance.

The Uniform Civil Code implies covering all these personal laws with one unified set of secular rules that will be applicable for each and every citizen of India irrespective of his or her religious community.

All Indian citizens are equal and should also live in unity as Indians. Yet it is a fact that in India the cultures of different communities are different… they were shaped, developed and assimilated over centuries. As such, they are deeply ingrained in the psyche of people, as individuals and as communities. Cultures enter the identity of the people. The BJP-led government will do well if it does full justice to the many cultures and religions of India.

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