By K. Raveendran
Two steps backward and one step forward. This pretty much characterises the approach of Congress and other parties on the issue of reforming the Muslim society of its outdated practices, the one in contention currently being triple talaq. Most accept that it is unfair on women and therefore want it abolished. They have no doubt that an end to the practice would benefit millions of Muslim women who have been wronged against and left in the lurch by their men; so they don’t want to be seen opposing legislative measures to deal with the problem. At the same time, they don’t dare offend the mullahs who they believe, rightly or wrongly, control Muslim public opinion and, by implication, the votes. The BJP, true to its nature, might be deriving some sadistic pleasure by offending the mullahs and teasing Congress and others caught in the rut, but they have almost the entire Muslim women community with them in bringing the law that makes triple talaq a punishable offence.
With elections approaching in a major state like Karnataka, along with Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the Congress has realised how the issue becomes a minefield that needs to be negotiated with great care. This worry has already muddled its approach in Parliament over the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017. When the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the party mostly cooperated with the government, offering only token resistance by way of a few clarifications or posers. But in the Rajya Sabha, where the numbers are against the government, the Congress and its allies took off on a tangent, demanding that the bill be referred to a standing committee for scrutiny. Apart from the urgency to have the bill passed before the end of February to beat the deadline set by the Supreme Court, this begs the question whether the party’s approach on such a vital issue should be based on a principled stand or the advantage of numbers. The concern for political expediency seems to have caught the party on the wrong foot.
The objections to the provisions of the bill appear to be completely specious and farfetched. The most contentious issue is the criminalisation of triple talaq, making it a cognizable and non-bailable offence. The proposed law provides for imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and fine for any Muslim man who divorces his wife by uttering talaq three times in quick succession. It also provides for subsistence allowance to Muslim women and custody of minor children as may be directed by a magistrate. The argument against such drastic punishment is based on the assumption that marriage between a Muslim man and woman is a social contract and therefore any issue arising out of it must be treated as civil dispute. If marriage is a civil contract, why should it be restricted to only the Muslims? If a member of any other community is involved in a relationship outside wedlock, the man may be criminally prosecuted for adultery and sent to jail. And in a latest development, the Supreme Court is set to decide if the woman in such relationship would also be liable for criminal prosecution. Nobody can claim that it is a private matter between the couple involved or is sanctioned by religion.
The other equally fallacious argument is about who would look after the wife and children if the ‘talaqi’ husband is sent to jail. The Muslim Personal Law Board, which takes great pains to justify talaq as being in the interest of protecting women by safeguarding their economic wellbeing, is asking how a jailed man can support his divorced wife and children with his earning capacity curtailed in the jail. Congress and other political parties opposing the penal provision seem to believe that the Muslim Board has hit up an ace. But the fact is that nothing can be more ridiculous than such an argument. Millions are languishing in Indian jails as undertrials or convicts for years without being able to arrange bail or security even when the crimes committed by them may have been of very minor nature. We have heard of politicians and people who occupy high positions being let off lightly. But we have not come across instances when ordinary people have been spared jail for the sake of their families. Do the courts or the lawmakers ever wonder what happens to the families of these people? Each case will be a hopeless story of abuse of women, lost childhood, destitution and serious behavioural problems for the affected children. Does anyone care? Then why this selective compassion?
In a most retrograde move, the one act of negating the Supreme Court verdict in the famous Shah Bano case by the Rajiv Gandhi government heaped great injustice and misery on millions of Muslim women who got talaq-ed by their religious-minded husbands and denied alimony. The Congress under his son is now rubbing salt on their wounds by trying to delay an inevitable reform, an act which is neither likely to bring his party votes nor earn it goodwill in times to come. (IPA Service)