Opp ploy to delay triple talaq Bill indefinitely

| | in Usual Suspects

The grand hope that the first week of 2018 would witness the first progressive legislation in Independent India governing the Muslim community was dashed by the logjam over the triple talaq Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The seemingly innocuous suggestion that the two-page Bill needed an exhaustive deliberation by a Select Committee — rather than an exhaustive debate, along with the usual quota of amendments, in the Upper House — was clever parliamentary tactic employed by the Opposition. In reality it meant that the legislation would be delayed indefinitely, not least because the Select Committee Report would probably be unacceptable to the Government.

Over the years, various judicial pronouncements have stressed the need for the Government to act on Article 44 of the Constitution and legislate a Uniform Civil Code. In the early days of the Republic, when Jawaharlal Nehru was gripped by a reforming zeal, many changes to the Hindu personal laws (particularly between 1954 and 1956) were  accompanied by the Government’s commitment that these changes were a precursor to the fulfilment of Article 44. Unfortunately, these commitments were never fulfilled.

It is remarkable that since 1947, no Government has succeeded in bringing about any legislation that has any bearing on the personal laws of the Muslim community. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights upon Divorce) Act that the Rajiv Gandhi Government passed in 1986 to overturn the Shah Bano verdict of the Supreme Court can hardly be described as a step forward. India’s largest minority community is still governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act enacted in 1937 and the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act of 1939. In other words, the advent of parliamentary democracy through universal adult franchise after the Constitution came into operation in 1950, has not resulted in any moves to bring Muslim personal laws in tune with modernity.

It may well be said that barring the criminality clause the triple talaq Bill was redundant because the Supreme Court has ruled against it. Yet, the shame that the provision for triple talaq will continue to remain in the statutes of India in the 21st century, albeit with a footnote about the apex court judgment. It only requires some regressive court judgment at some point in the future for the clause to be restored as law.

The issue is not hypothetical. Both the 1937 and 1939 Acts contain clauses that will not stand the test of gender equity and justice. Yet they continue in the statutes because they are safeguarded by other Constitutional provisions guaranteeing the rights of minorities to be governed by their own personal laws, however progressive or regressive.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board wrote a letter to all MPs proclaiming their total opposition to any legislation that touched Muslim personal laws. The body also claimed to speak for all Muslims of India, including Muslim women. Tomorrow, what is to stop any self-professed representative body to insist that as far as the community is concerned unilateral triple talaq is valid and enjoys religious sanction? A defiant assertion like this, complemented by a government that is too dependent on Muslim votes, could have the net effect of making the Supreme Court judgment in the Ishrat Jehan case absolutely toothless. Criminalising triple talaq doesn’t stop the brazen defiance of a ban but it at least serves as a possible deterrent. By not enacting the Bill, the ‘secular’ parties of India have kept the door open for political civil disobedience by those who want the Muslim community to live in a time warp.

In the short period before the long Budget Session of Parliament commences on January 29, both the Government and the Opposition will apply their mind to the future course of action. The Opposition, particularly the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, which took one stand in the Lok Sabha and an opposite position in the Rajya Sabha, will probably calculate that it is best to bury the issue altogether.

It is an option that in some ways is even preferable than dissecting the Bill in a Select Committee of Parliament.

They should be denied that cynical luxury. It is quite clear that the Opposition played a duplicitous game and succeeded in its main objective of preventing the passage of the Bill — exactly what the AIMPLB wanted. However, it is also clear that the main votaries of the secular consensus are also deeply embarrassed at having to shed their progressive pretensions because they can’t afford to alienate the ‘community leaders’ of the Muslims. This embarrassment should be highlighted and pressure maintained so that there is a possibility that the smooth passage of the triple talaq Bill in the Lok Sabha is emulated in the Rajya Sabha.

Simultaneously, however, it is important that new areas of activism are developed. Since the Supreme Court judgment in the Ishrat Jehan case, more and more Muslim women have spoken up against the iniquities of their personal laws. They should be encouraged and provided a platform. Equally, the battle should be enlarged into a campaign that highlights other regressive features of personal laws.

It is important to strive for a Uniform Civil Code. Yet the project is premature since no work has really been done to ensure a blend of the different personal laws. As such, the thrust should be on reform of the different personal laws so that they are at least governed by a similar set of humanistic values. The project is not narrowly political, it is really an attempt to redefine India’s social landscape for the 21st century. 

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