It has been 69 years since that fateful night when India as the world knew it woke up to two bitterly divided nations. Applauded by some and voraciously critiqued by the others, it was a reality that was permanent, to be accepted by Hindus and Muslims alike. In the mass of communal riots that broke out with vengeance even days after one became two, the Indian Muslims were the ones that had the most to lose at the time.
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But their fate was decided even before the day of Partition. In the years following the Battle of Plassey (1757), India saw the British officially acclaim political dominance in the country, on open behalf of the crown. With this came the responsibility of governing a body of people from different cultures and ethnicities. Since there wasn’t any uniform code of law in proper existence at the time, they decided to govern the masses through the introduction of a ‘Code of Gentoo Laws’, where the Hindus would be governed by the ‘Hindu Personal Law’ and the Muslims by the ‘Muslim Personal Law’.
In layman’s words, this basically meant that the Hindus and Muslims would be governed according to the interpretations of the various religious scriptures of their respective religions. Coming to the Muslim Common Law, it was ordained that Indian Muslims would be governed according to the ‘Shariat’ Application Act 1937. However, while the Hindu Personal Law was codified, normalised and even modified, its Muslim counterpart was not, leaving it largely open to interpretation and making it all the more sensitive.
The reason behind speaking about the Muslim Personal Law today is the fact that it’s ‘touch-me-not’ aspect may be the reason behind the existing orthodox Islamic laws in India today, most of which are putting Indian Muslim women at a highly unfair disadvantage. Of all of these existing laws, the ones that stand out the most are the ‘Talaq-e-bidat’ or the ‘Triple Talaq’, where a Muslim man can divorce his wife by pronouncing more than one talaq in a single ‘tuhr’ (the period between two menstruations), or in a ‘tuhr’ after coitus, or pronouncing an irrevocable instantaneous divorce at one go (unilateral triple-talaq). Another practice to be noted is the ‘Nikah halala’, which refers to the intermediate second marriage of a woman, whose husband then divorces her so that her previous husband can remarry her.
Today, the unchallenged concept of Triple Talaq is taking on new forces and mediums. In the past couple of years, Muslim men have even resorted to the means of emails, social media and text messages to utter the dreaded ‘talaq talaq talaq’ to their wives, leading to an immediate and confirmed divorce, with no say for the wife in question.
The wives then have their lives uprooted. Many of them lack the financial backing to receive custody of their children (if any) and more often than not, they have no educational qualifications to find a job. Hence, they helplessly watch on and accept their ex-husbands’ whimsical turns.
However, this orthodox practice has been actively challenged by activist and social reform groups for a few years now and finally, following the several petitions submitted to the Supreme Court for the ban of this uncouth practice, the Apex Court “has called for an open-court debate on the highest judiciary’s authority to look into Islamic personal law and possibly subject it to the regime of fundamental rights under the Constitution,” according to The Hindu.
Meanwhile, the Centre is to give a consolidated reply to the Supreme Court via the medium of a Law Ministry comprising of an inter-ministerial panel that consists of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and finally, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. The Law Minister is to act on behalf of all the stakeholders, which include the National Commission for Women and the Women and Child Development Ministry, sources said.
Over the last few weeks, the panel has been looking into the matter of triple talaq in India. According to The Times of India, in lieu of the panel’s reports to the Supreme Court, the latter seems to be edging towards challenging the orthodox practice.
“Muslim law is not fortified in India, which means that actually there is no law. It is open to interpretation by anyone. This is the main reason why Muslim men are able to get away with almost anything. It has become easier for them to divorce their wives in the digital era. We are encountering a number of cases now where the men are using digital media to divorce their wives,” says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founding member of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which has branches up in eleven states for the upliftment of Muslim women in India.
The strange part is that while India allows oral and triple talaq, the practice is banned in most Muslim-dominated countries, including neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
What many people don’t know is that the Supreme Court had pushed for uniformity in laws and had even on one occasion ordered a man to pay alimony to his elderly wife after divorcing and abandoning her. However, sources believe that the Government came under pressure from the various Muslim Leaders to stay out of their personal law businesses in the fear of losing out on important electoral votes.
There are, of course, powerful political-religious bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Board who defend this practice, stating that it falls under the ‘legislative domain’ besides being ‘based on religious scriptures’, thus cannot be interfered with. To top up the indignation meted out by the opposing parties, they also said that practices like ‘triple talaq’ is a protective measure for the Muslim women because their husbands can get rid of them simply without having to undergo the prolonged wait period of making it a court case. In fact, they say, a ban on the practice could fuel the husband’s wrath and impatience and lead him to ‘kill his wife’ as an easy way out.
However, the Indian Muslim Women are fed up and have found an active voice, loud enough to get the Centre’s attention, demanding that this uncouth practice be ended, once and for all. Organizations like BMMA and STEPS Women Jammat have pooled in all their contacts, resources and efforts to submit these please to the authorities and made it their mission to reach out to the ongoing public about their cause.
On October 16, last year, the Supreme Court had decided to register a PIL suo motu titled “Muslim women’s quest for equality,” on the gender discrimination women face under the Muslim personal law. A few hours ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a rally declared that it was the Government’s “constitutional duty” to give Islamic women their rights and has also stated that he is going to put his government’s weight behind pushing for the ban of this “unconstitutional” practice. “Daughters, mothers, sisters should be protected. One should not consider religion. Mothers and sisters should be respected,” said the Prime Minister.
Although opposing parties have deemed Modi’s speech as “absolutely politically motivated” in lieu of the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, the Prime Minister has remained undeterred in his stance. He has pledged his support in the ban of this practice, hopefully leading to the beginning of the end of a largely regressive life for the Indian Muslim Woman.