The day before India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waxed eloquent on the triple talaq bill in parliament, saffron bullies confronted a group of Muslims offering prayers at a park in Noida, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The stormtroopers were mocking and threatening. ‘Today, you are offering namaaz (prayer), tomorrow you will build a mosque here,’ they said jeeringly.
The BJP’s television warriors supported the saffronites during a debate, arguing that permission has to be sought before “occupying” a public place. As for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar (saffron brotherhood), there is no question of showering petals from helicopters on the namaazis as was done in UP on the kanwariyas or the worshippers of Lord Shiva as they marched along the roads and highways with or without formal permission.
These contrasting attitudes of the party in power at the Centre towards Hindu and Muslim devotees — lenience towards the former and sternness towards the latter — do not conform to the BJP’s outpouring of concern for Muslim women who may be victims of the admittedly abhorrent practise of men summarily divorcing their wives on flimsy grounds. If the BJP is genuinely concerned about the welfare of Muslim women, its benevolence and sympathy should be reflected in its attitude towards the entire community and not towards a section.
Since this isn’t the case as the vituperation directed at Muslims by the trolls shows, along with the advice of saffron stalwarts such as Vinay Katiyar, who wants the Muslims to leave India for Pakistan or Bangladesh, or the urging of a BJP member of parliament to dig up the Jama Masjid to uncover the hidden temples, it is logical to suspect that the BJP’s focus on triple talaq is guided more by political than humane, gender-based considerations. The party’s aim must be to wean away at least some women since it is unlikely to gain the votes of Muslims as a community, given the Parivar’s nine-decade-long preference for a Hindu Rashtra (state).
The BJP may also have planned to offer a Hobson’s choice to its opponents: Opposing the bill will depict them as anti-women while supporting it will mean meekly endorsing their adversary. Sections of the opposition evaded the trap by walking out of the Lok Sabha [the Lower House of parliament] before the vote. But the issue will come up in the Rajya Sabha [Upper House] where a clear stance will have to be taken.
The opposition wants the bill to be sent to a joint select committee since some provisions need modifications, especially the one on criminalising the “offence” of divorcing the wife. This is the sticking point, for it is absurd to criminally prosecute a man for a divorce even if his act is whimsical, and has no sanction even in Muslim countries. For such a practice to be prevalent only in India brings no glory to the Muslims.
Ideally, the “reform” should have come from within the community. However, since the organisations that claim to look after Muslim interests had not taken any interest for all these years, it was left to the Supreme Court to ban the practice of triple talaq although it did not call for a law.
Need for modifications
The BJP must have favoured the legal process for two reasons — both political. One is for votes by championing women’s empowerment, and the other is to send a message to the Muslims (and other minorities) that the government will not hesitate — unlike its “secular” predecessors — to legislate even in matters that fall within the purview of personal laws.
The “secular” governments’ hesitation must have stemmed from their unwillingness to interfere in the affairs of a community that suffered from a guilt complex from the country’s partition — a “sin” for which they were accused of being unpatriotic, especially by the Hindu Right.
However, now that a Hindu nationalist government has done what the Left-Liberals were reluctant to do, the latter can rectify some of their earlier lapses such as overturning the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case on maintenance for divorced women and help in fine-tuning the triple talaq legislation to make it acceptable to all.
The BJP’s defeats in the Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections have shown that the triple talaq issue hasn’t been of much help. If it has now rushed through the bill in the Lok Sabha, it is perhaps with the general election in mind. However, all parties should strive to keep the matter above politics and ensure that the new law does not penalise either men or the women or the children of divorced parents.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst based in India.