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Religion, Civil Society and Personal (Family) Law Reform in Post-Colonial Nation-States: Interrogating Secularity in India and Beyond

Convenor: Anindita Chakrabarti


25 June 2019


Leipzig University


Strohsack, room 5.55


The recent scholarship on secularity has brought to the fore its multiple frames as well as contestations over its meanings in different national/cultural contexts. The debate has also cleared ground for thinking through secularity not as an ideology of separation between religion and politics/state and the concomitant privatization of the former but as a question of individual rights and religious freedom. At the same time, it has been argued how the modern state and its secular legal machinery in the process of creating and maintaining a sharp separation between the domain of the secular and religious paradoxically produces the latter. The question of regulating religion-based family law in post-colonial multicultural nation-states has thrown up intellectual/conceptual challenges vis-à-vis the question of secularity. In this workshop we trace the changing frames of secularity in the context of governance of personal law in post-colonial nation-states like India. We begin with the question: what does it mean to ‘govern’ personal law in secular democratic states? In the Indian context we detect an elective affinity between attempts at personal law reform by the state and the emergence of modern organizations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) for protecting Muslim Personal Law. The Board emerged in 1973 as a response to the Uniform Adoption Bill introduced in the Parliament. The proposed bill, perceived as contrary to the Islamic principle of guardianship and inheritance, was considered as an infringement to Islamic family law. Within a period of three years, the word ‘secular’ was added to the preamble of the Indian Constitution in 1976.1  In the next two decades, from a small colloquium, the Board developed into a pressure group of national importance. On the other hand, the demand for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) brought women’s groups, secular-liberals as well as Hindu nationalists on the same platform as they used the same trope of gender justice to ‘reform’ regressive Muslim Personal Law.


In the recent years, the demand for reform in Muslim Personal Law has taken place through a pro-active judiciary and civil society activism. The banning of the practice of arbitrary ‘instantaneous divorce’ (triple talaq) began with a suo moto case by the apex court on the ground of gender discrimination in Muslim Personal Law. After long deliberations where the media played a very crucial role, arbitrary divorce has been pronounced illegal in August 2017. In this debate, the concept of secularity was articulated as ‘subjection of religion to the rule of law’, deftly manoeuvred through suo moto intervention of the apex court, as well as Public Interest Litigation suits filed by women who had suffered such divorce. At the same time, grass-root women’s organizations who have critiqued this legal centralism, top-down approach to gender justice and argued for reforms from within the communities also appeal to the secular commitment of the Indian nation-state. The principle of secularity has emerged as the key argument for both the camps in the pitched battle. What needs theorization is how the public discourse created a demarcated ‘Muslim’ problem through an activist judiciary, interventions by women’s organizations and the media.


The workshop aims to unpack some of these recent as well as historical dynamics of judicial reform of personal law in India in order to think through how the principle of secularity has been intertwined with the questions of authority, authenticity and governance. We are looking for empirically grounded work that can contribute to a better understanding of the conceptual issues vis-à-vis the shifting contours of the guiding principles of secularity in post-colonial democracies. We also seek papers from other national contexts where similar issues of religious freedom, gender and personal law reforms have undergirded the debate on secularity in contemporary times.2


1 The 42nd amendment through which addition was made is regarded as the most controversial amendments in the history of the Indian Constitution which was enacted during the period of Emergency (1975-77).

2 Hussein Ali Agrama’s work on the question of secularism in the Egyptian context would be one such comparative frame to think through some of these questions.


List of speakers:


Flavia Agnes: Lawyer, author and Mumbai-based activist


Gopika Solanki: Carlton University (Ottawa, Canada)


Suchandra Ghosh: KFG "Multiple Secularities", IIT Kanpur


Anuj Bhuwania: Ambedkar University, Delhi


Mirjam Künkler: KFG "Multiple Secularities"


Farzana Haniffa: University of Cambridge, University of Colombo