Recently enacted Triple Talaq Bill is a piecemeal legislation to safeguard Muslim women’s rights regarding un-Islamic practice of marriage dissolution. While discussions are still raging over the legal propriety of rendering a civil offence to cognizable criminal one and what is the raison detre of government pushing a bill that may affect only microscopic population of Muslim community at the cost of larger concrete reforms, it also heralds a paradigm shift in politics over Muslim women of India. Although they are still employed as pawns of electoral politics, this new change has succinctly reinvented the narrative regarding Indian Muslim women.
Colonial legacy of religious clerical appeasement by way of allowing limited leeway in civil cases through Shariat Act of 1937 continued unhindered even after India made transition to secular state. Cavalier political leadership of the time squandered valuable opportunities to reform Muslim personal law whereas legal apparatus of independent India provided fillip to codify and rationalise Hindu laws. It was Shah Banu case in 1980s which first brought into national attention the plight of Indian Muslim women. This and subsequent reactionary measures of Rajiv Gandhi government like enacting The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 to bypass Supreme Court verdict favouring progressive changes to Muslim personal law initiated serious debates over the issue. Also it kick-started competing identity based claims within a rapidly communalising political environment where Muslim women became symbols of community for Muslim conservative and Hindu nationalists alike.
Ideologically inspired by seminal works of Margot Badran and Riffat Hassan, Indian Muslim women openly, though limited to urban and elite circles, began nascent struggles against patriarchal notions that smacked women of their creative agency. After the tragic incidents of Shah Bano Islamic feminist movement was loosely spearheaded by progressive organisations pitting against the ghastly orthodox elements; while right wing was gritting the teeth over the appeasement politics of Rajiv Gandhi through the enactment of marriage resolution bill.Congress party wrongly pandered to the lure of political leverage and put the weight along with the reactionary orthodox elements. Brazen concessions generously provided to minority community through legislation infuriated the right wing who complained of lopsided secularism of Congress party giving protection to minorities and corrupting Hindu religious practices by introducing progressive reforms.
The dual struggle of Muslim women’s cause continued with mighty conservative section represented by AIMPLB and Congress at one side and tiny intellectual band of progressive thinkers on the other. All attempts of progressive people proved futile as the ramparts of orthodoxy stifled the demands for change. Situation continued somewhat like this with some occasional court interventions till the ascendancy of Modi government in 2014 on the plank of Hindutua. Right wing harbouring grudges against appeasement politics now joined the battlefield and donned the role of messiah for the ‘imagined oppressed Muslim womenfolk’. Now the stage was set for emphatic changes to Muslim personal law to rectify historical mistakes of previous governments. Hitherto conservative section buoyed by benevolent support from Congress and Left parties was posed tremendous challenge by progressive reformers wholeheartedly backed by new regime. Chicanery of the orthodox to manipulate the popular opinion was gradually on the vain. This was first time in Indian history that progressive elements won superior position over the orthodox in terms of political support and was able to aggressively push their agenda forward.
By backing the reform efforts of the Progressive Muslims BJP sent clear message to majority community who helped Modi sail back to the mantle. Abolition of Triple Talaq Bill alluded to abrupt culmination of minority appeasement politics and emphatic victory for majoritarian triumphalism. Congress unable to put up ideologically sound counter was thrown to the dock and heaps of blame were piled indicting them for giving up secular credentials of the nation for minority appeasement. Numb Left parties cynically shunned reform agenda only to discredit the BJP and thus forever forfeiting their moral right to speak up for social reform.
The tilt in balance between the conservative and progressive in terms of political support is of vital importance. Presently, progressive agendas of minuscule progressive elements of Muslim community earlier confined to discussion tables and stacking academic writings have found strong patron in the garb of BJP. Now it is for the progressive forces to advance reform agendas while ever exhausting orthodoxy is on crumbling defence. As the things stand so, right wing is covertly hopeful to exploit the tilted equation to aggressively push for more reforms in Muslim personal law as to propitiate the majority community and undermine the religious existence of Muslim community. That is why more superfluous Muslim reform billsare on the anvil of BJP.
Mubashir VP, Post Graduate student, Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia MilliaIslamia