Of reform and resistance

Only the surviving witnesses to the era know how crucial a role the Hindu Code Bill, aimed at a comprehensive reform and codification of Hindu personal law, played in this country's political evolution in the early years of Independence. The relentless, often bitter, fight over this hyper-controversial legislation also settled the delicate issue of Presidential powers under the Constitution.

 To drastically summarise the fascinating story, the Hindu Code Bill was a logical outcome of the struggle since the 19th century for reform of Hindu personal law and social customs that had already given the country laws against child marriages and for widow remarriage. There was rampant confusion about what exactly the Hindu law was. Verdicts on its various facets were scattered over countless and sometimes contradictory judgments of Britain's Privy Council. However, by the time the voluminous Hindu Code Bill was ready in 1948, vociferous opposition to it had risen to a crescendo. For instance, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who hadn't said a word against the Hindu Code while he was a member of Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet (1947-50) thundered in 1951 that the Bill would "shatter the magnificent architecture of the Hindu culture". By then he had founded the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP. Equally passionate in the Hindu Code's defence were its supporters, with Nehru and his extremely able law minister, B. R. Ambedkar, in the forefront.

The battle lines were clearly drawn, and neither side was prepared to give in. But primarily because the opposition to the Hindu Code within the Congress party was strong and widespread, its progress was glacially slow. In December 1949, when the Constituent Assembly, doubling as the Central Legislative Assembly, discussed it at length, 23 out of the 28 members who spoke were opposed to it. Most of them were Congressmen. Soon thereafter, India became a republic, and the Constituent Assembly yielded place to the provisional Parliament. The Bill lapsed but was immediately reintroduced in the new House. 

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