PM speaks again
Speaking at a convention in the national capital on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of triple talaq for the second time in a month. In a speech delivered to celebrate the birth anniversary of Basava, a 12th-century philosopher and social reformer, Modi urged the Muslim community to not politicise triple talaq and to have an open mind about the practice. "I request the Muslim community, don't look at this issue through a political lens, and don't let it go that route," he said. The Prime Minister also called upon the reformers of the community to fight for the rights of Muslim women. "Muslim reformers will come forward some day and fight against the suffering of Muslim daughters to find a way forward," he added. There is a definite push from the NDA government against the controversial divorce practice adopted by sections of the Indian Muslim community. At the BJP's national executive earlier this month, the Prime Minister stressed that "injustice should not be done to Muslim women". For the uninitiated, as per the practice of triple talaq, a Muslim husband can unilaterally divorce his wife by merely saying the word "talaq" (divorce) three times in one go. In the opinion of the Allahabad High Court, the practice by which Muslim men can orally end their marriages is "cruel" and the "most demeaning form of divorce." In fact, the Supreme Court had in 2002 rendered illegal the practice that many Muslim men employ to divorce their wives instantaneously and without their consent. Unfortunately, the court's orders did not stop the practice, and many Muslim women have suffered in silence owing to ignorance of past judgments and societal pressure. "While traumatic for all, often unsuspecting, women this is particularly devastating for poorer women, who find themselves on the streets with their children and no income. Parents are often too poor to sustain them, and the stories recorded by women organisations speak of the suffering they undergo. The man is left free to marry again, without bothering about maintenance," writes Seema Mustafa, Founder Editor of The Citizen, a digital newspaper. Despite the tireless efforts of many Muslim women and organisations, it took the case of Shayara Bano, who was one such victim of triple talaq and filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the same, for the issue to gather steam in the public consciousness. Her petition, which was filed in February 2016, also demands a ban on polygamy and nikah halala, a practice that forces a divorced Muslim woman to consummate and break the second marriage if she wants to get back with her first husband. The issue went into overdrive in October 2016, when the National Law Commission released a questionnaire, seeking public opinion on a Uniform Civil Code, which would replace all personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community in India with a legislation that is binding on all citizens.
The debate on the uniform civil code, however, has been stereotyped as one that concerns Muslims alone. Political reactionaries from the Hindu Right, who hold sway in the NDA government, and the Muslim community represented by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, are responsible for conflating the issue of triple talaq with the Uniform Civil Code. Despite Prime Minister Modi's plea to the Muslim community to not "politicise" triple talaq, it is legislators from his party that have used the issue as a stick to beat the minority religious community. Despite their best efforts, the Supreme Court refused to club hearings on the Uniform Civil Code with those on Muslim personal laws, saying they were two separate subjects. As far as the narrative on the Unform Civil Code is concerned, the court has set the record straight. The Centre's official position on the subject is clear. It had urged the Supreme Court to declare the Islamic practices of triple talaq, nikah halala, and polygamy inconsistent with Muslim women's fundamental right to life and dignity. In response, the court said that a five-judge Constitution Bench would hear a batch of petitions challenging the Islamic practice of triple talaq. Bano's case has now been clubbed with several other similar petitions by Muslim women and organisations across India. In the triple talaq case, the court may venture along similar contours. Both cases require the court to take difficult decisions on competing constitutional rights. Standing in the way of repealing triple talaq is the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which argues that the rights bestowed by religion cannot be questioned in a court of law. Read the Quran, and one would not find any mention of triple talaq, argue many scholars of Islam. They claim that the Quran has laid down elaborate injunctions on divorce, and calls for reconciliation and mediation over a period of 90 days involving both sides. It is in stark contrast to the immediate and binding nature of the triple talaq. In fact, many Muslim-majority countries have rejected the practice including, Indonesia, Iran, and Tunisia. The court must dismiss the AIMPLB's contention that "personal laws cannot be challenged." Many among the Muslim community have also called for a repeal of a practice, which is inordinately cruel on women. "Triple talaq is a tribal practice inherited and adopted by certain sections of the Islamic world which was packaged in a religious garb, just like a number of similar other cultural/tribal practices, such as female genital mutilation, etc. Thankfully the practice has been abolished in much of the Islamic world. Now that the Muslim women of India have finally spoken and spoken so vocally, it is high time the nation comes forward with its full support to reject this outdated practice, writes Sadaf Munshi, a US-based academic, writer, and artist. Which way will the court rule? Only time will tell.