Dalit History Month: 'The Hindu Code Bill' and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision for Women's Equality and Rights

Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar, a resolute advocate of gender equality and female empowerment, championed the provisions in the Hindu Code Bill that empowered women with legal rights. During the Dalit History Month series, Babasaheb's women's rights views will be explored.
Dalit History Month: 'The Hindu Code Bill' and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision for Women's Equality and Rights

The historic status of women in India, which was inequitable and unjust, necessitates delving into the past to uncover how our female forebears gained the freedom to pursue equality whilst being rescued from abominable social ills. In the past, Hindu society provided no legal grounds for divorce, while allowing males to marry multiple times; widows were prohibited from remarrying and were denied a share in the inheritance. Such prevalent gender-based discrimination afflicts many other social norms.

Despite the apparent contemporary democratic and liberal stance of Hindu society towards women, it was by no means so accommodating, even up until a few decades ago. Over a hundred years ago, when the movement aimed at educating young girls was initiated, numerous cases of orthodox fundamentalists boycotting families that allowed their daughters to attend school emerged. These progressive families were met with social ostracism.

Upon witnessing the deplorable status of women, Babasaheb sought to develop a legal framework to eradicate the aforementioned social maladies. He was passionate about getting the Hindu Code Bill approved, expressing that he would be more delighted to witness it passed than even the Indian Constitution. Unfortunately, it was not ratified at that stage.

Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar submitted the Hindu Code Bill before the Constituent Assembly, responsible for drafting the nation's constitution, on April 11th, 1947. However, almost every male parliament member voiced opposition to the bill, suggesting that even renowned figures such as Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru were opposed to it. Following its proposal, Ambedkar was met with opposition from a broad spectrum of organizations ranging from Sanatani religious groups to the Arya Samaj. The bill sought to eliminate long-standing Hindu traditions considered oppressive towards women, which were defended by conservative religious factions masquerading as traditionalists. Many Hindu organizations strongly advocated for the preservation of these practices.

The revolutionary clauses in Hindu Code Bill

The proposed Hindu Code Bill entailed revolutionary clauses such as granting women the right to divorce, property rights for daughters, and full property rights for widows. It also included provisions for daughters to be given an equal share in their father's inheritance. If approved, the bill would have played a crucial role in abolishing the Sati system and the dowry system in 1951. However, despite these progressive objectives, the bill eventually failed to pass as it lapsed within the stipulated time limit following its introduction. This caused Babasaheb to resign from his post as law minister, citing issues such as the non-passage of the bill.

The bill proposed two types of marriages - ritualistic and civil. It included provisions that banned Hindu men from conducting polygamous marriages and outlined legal measures for separation. The provisions also aimed to grant Hindu women the right to divorce their husbands if they did not wish to live together for any reason. In essence, Babasaheb sought to provide legal recourse to women who wished to separate from their husbands.

The Hindu Code Bill contained provisions for the grounds on which a divorce could be filed. These included seven grounds, which were desertion, conversion to another religion, engaging in a concubine or becoming a concubine, incurable mental illness, incurable and contagious leprosy, infectious venereal disease, and cruelty. These provisions aimed to provide legal grounds for couples seeking to divorce, ensuring that women were not left in situations where they could not leave abusive or intolerable marriages.

Opposition by Hindu outfits

Hindu organizations strongly opposed the Hindu Code Bill, arguing that it went against Hindu traditions and scriptures. The bill was sent to a select committee for review on April 9, 1948. Babasaheb introduced the bill again in 1951, but it faced widespread criticism and uproar both inside and outside the parliament. The parliament at that time was interim, and members were not elected by the public. Opponents of the bill argued that these interim members did not have a moral right to pass such a bill. The debate on the bill in the parliament lasted for three days. Ultimately, the bill lapsed without being passed, and Babasaheb resigned as the law minister in protest.

Dalit History Month: 'The Hindu Code Bill' and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision for Women's Equality and Rights
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The Hindu wing of the Congress and the Jana Sangh opposed the Hindu Code Bill in the parliament, while protests against the bill were taking place outside the parliament led by Hariharananda Saraswati, also known as Karpatri Maharaj. Karpatri was the founder of All India Ram Rajya Parishad and considered the bill to be an interference in Hindu religion and against Hindu customs, traditions, and rituals. He even challenged then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to a debate on the bill. The RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, and other Hindu organizations also protested against the bill across the country. The RSS organized dozens of rallies in Delhi to oppose the bill. The opposition from these organizations played a significant role in the bill ultimately not being passed.

Nehru in favour of the Hindu Code Bill

Jawaharlal Nehru, the then-Prime Minister of India, was in favor of passing the Hindu Code Bill but faced significant opposition from various Hindu organizations. Due to the protests and the approaching general elections, Nehru chose not to push for the bill's passage at that time. However, he had previously shown his support for the bill during a meeting of the Constituent Assembly in February 1949. During the meeting, Nehru emphasized the importance of this law, saying that their government could not remain in power without passing it. Despite his strong support for the bill, it was not passed during his tenure as Prime Minister. It was ultimately passed in parliament in 1955, after Nehru's death, under the leadership of his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

Divided and enacted in parts

After the first Lok Sabha elections held between 5 October 1951 and 21 February 1952, Nehru divided the Hindu Code Bill into several parts and made amendments to it. The Hindu Marriage Act was eventually enacted in 1955, under which divorce was given legal status. The act also allowed for inter-caste marriages and declared polygamy illegal in India. The amendments and division of the bill were seen as a compromise by Nehru, as it allowed for some of the changes he had hoped to make while also addressing the concerns of Hindu organizations who were strongly opposed to the original bill. The Hindu Marriage Act was a significant milestone in the modernization of Hindu family laws and increased women's rights within marriage and divorce.

The Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, and Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act were passed in 1956, further modernizing Hindu family laws and giving equal status to women in Indian society. The Hindu Succession Act gave women the right to inherit and own property, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act made it easier for Hindus to legally adopt children. The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act specified the legal rights of Hindu minors and guardianship of children. These laws were significant in terms of women's rights and gender equality in India at the time, as they gave women legal rights in property and emphasized the importance of girl child adoption. 

Dalit History Month: 'The Hindu Code Bill' and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision for Women's Equality and Rights
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Story Translated by Pratikshit Singh

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