For the last few weeks, ever since the Supreme Court had called for public and government response on the petition by some Muslim women and other activists on the issue, the air has been thick with calls by some interested parties—including Muslim clerics—that the Government is seeking to introduce the Uniform Civil Code through the backdoor by tinkering with Muslim personal law.
Because the original petition is asking the apex court to pronounce on polygamy among Muslims, and the Law Commission, an independent statutory body, has started a public discourse on Uniform Civil Code (UCC) which is part of the Directive Principles of the Constitution, the issue of triple talaq has been tagged along with the rights and wrongs of polygamy to mislead public opinion with the age old “religion in danger” slogan.
By pointing out how female foeticide has not only been banned but is listed as a criminal offence under the law, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has narrowed down the issue of triple talaq as well to a question of gender rights. “A Hindu has to go to jail for committing female foeticide,” Modi pointed out. “What is the crime of my Muslim sisters that someone says talaq over the phone and her life is destroyed,” he added. That puts the issue in sharp contrast. The contrast is telling.
Not allowing a girl child to be born is crime in our country and rightly so. But what the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) wise men are saying is that, you let us freely and instantaneously dissolve a marriage and also leave the wife helpless without maintenance from the husband and that is acceptable because our religion says so (on which many Muslim theologians strongly assert a contrary view on the doctrine).
Not even a chance for the wife to defend herself, not even a right to know why the relationship is dissolved even over a telephone? Whatever religion says or may not say, the question here is: will you let the Constitution prevail? Will you, by allowing triple talaq to continue, let the most basic document of the country be violated?
When gender discrimination even within a private corporate or association office is punishable under the law, how can anyone claim an exception for such discrimination in a marital relationship? The wise men of the Board have added insult to injury by claiming that women, being physically weak compared to men, need protection and easy dissolution of marriage by the husband is one such protection. To underline this, the Board even claims that such ease of access to divorce protects wives f rom being physically eliminated by angry husbands who are wary of the long delay in courts for non-Muslim communities “to get rid of unwanted wives”.
The Board itself asserts that women are the weaker party but does not specify what protection its rules gives to the female victim. On the other hand, when the Supreme Court itself ruled in the Shah Bano case in 1980s that a divorced Muslim woman is entitled to maintenance, the same Board and politicians from the community moved heaven and earth to nullify this claiming that in their religion, marriage is only a contract, limited and easily dissolved without obligations to anyone.
The Prime Minister has been careful to caution his partymen and colleagues to resist the temptation to project the move against instant divorce as the first step on the road to UCC, though the Constitution lays down UCC as a directive principle of the polity. Nor should this be looked at as a Hindu- Muslim issue. Opposing triple talaq is a matter of ensuring gender equality for all people in the country.
Also important in this discourse over the triple talaq is the way the controversy is being dealt with. The issue is now in the public domain and the apex court can hear all the different viewpoints and make its own considered judgment. The issue, Modi once again said while speaking in Bundelkhand in a Muslim area of Mohaba, that as far as his government is concerned about the “lives of Muslim women, they cannot be allowed to be ruined by triple talaq”.
What is the answer of the Board and the clerics to this question of the lives of one community’s women being allowed to be ruined by the triple talaq? So far the Board or other opponents of change have not come out with any answer. Beyond claiming that it is a matter of faith for them, they have nothing to add. By invoking religion, the Board wants to preserve the status quo and continues to expose their women to a situation that would ruin their lives. How could a democratic society based on liberal principles of equality for all citizens as a fundamental principle just be asked to close its eye on this aspect of gender discrimination?
With the Prime Minister clearly restating the issue in terms of the fundamental rights adumbrated in the Constitution, it is clear that there would be no going back to the status quo unlike what the Congress government did in 1980s. A majority of Muslim countries have found it necessary in a modern state to shed the remnants of a medieval age when people’s rights were subservient to the existing power structure.
The basic rights of citizens were not honoured then and no mechanism even existed for honouring them. In all religions, black spots persisted, like Sati among Hindu women. In independent India, the rights of all women on equal terms with men have been not only enshrined but laws were made to enforce them. Even within a marital relationship, husbands are not allowed to physically or mentally violate their wives.