The Lower House of Indian Parliament last week passed the Triple Talaq Bill, which makes the practice of instant triple talaq a criminal offence, punishable up to three years in jail for the husband.
A few days later, the Bill was rejected by the Upper House of the Parliament. The reason being that while the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which forms the government in India today, had the numbers in the Lower House to ensure a safe passage of the Bill, lacked that numerical strength in the Upper House.
Politically, it is the BJP that has pushed aggressively for the Triple Talaq Bill to be passed by both Houses of Parliament claiming that this is about the rights of the Muslim women in India and further that this is about gender equality.
The Opposition parties in India have accused the BJP of using the Bill as yet another trick to ensure that it takes away the religious rights of the minorities. Many have also pointed out that the Bill actually penalizes Muslim men more than assuring Muslim women any kind of justice.
The BJP has stuck to its stand that it is doing so to ensure Muslim women are not deserted by their husbands and left alone to fend for themselves. It is significant to note here that the practice where a Muslim man could utter talaq thrice and instantly divorce his wife was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2017. However, the Supreme Court did not criminalize the act, something the Triple Talaq Bill proposes to do.
A clear indication of where the government stands on the Triple Talaq Bill was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in a recent interview said, “Triple Talaq ordinance was brought after Supreme Court verdict. We have said in our BJP manifesto that a solution would be found to this issue under the Constitution.”
“Most Islamic countries have banned Triple Talaq. So it is not a matter of religion or faith. Even in Pakistan, Triple Talaq is banned. So it is an issue of gender equality, matter of social justice. It is not an issue of faith. So keep the two separate,” he added.
It didn’t take long for many to point out that while Prime Minister Modi seemed to accept the Supreme Court decision in the triple talaq matter, he differed in the case of the temple issueSimran Sodhi
However, in the same interview, the PM struck a different chord on the issue of women entry into the Sabarimala temple. (The Sabarimala temple issue has become a sensitive, political topic today. The entry of menstruating women, aged between 10 to 50 was banned in the temple for years.
The Supreme Court, three months ago, in a judgment allowed the entry of women in the temple. However, this has seen violent protests on the ground where the entry of women is still not being permitted.)
PM Modi said that Sabarimala relates to traditions and respect for them. “India is of one opinion that everyone should get justice. There are some temples, which have their own traditions, where men can’t go. And men don’t go... In this, Sabrimala, a woman judge in the Supreme Court has made certain observations. It needs to be read minutely. There is no need to attribute those to any political party. As a woman, she has made some suggestions. There should be a debate on that as well sometimes,” Modi said.
But taken together the two statements don’t add up and it didn’t take long for many to point out that while the Prime Minister seemed to accept the Supreme Court decision in the triple talaq matter, he differed in the case of the temple issue. As many in the legal fraternity were quick to point out, that decisions of the Apex Court cannot be applied “selectively”.
Noted Supreme Court lawyer Dr. Surat Singh said that if the Triple Talaq Bill is about gender equality, then so is the Sabarimala case. “The Muslim community can also then argue that the practice of triple talaq is about tradition. If we accept the Supreme Court ruling in triple talaq but not in Sabarimala, then that points to double standards and hypocrisy.”
Dr. Singh dismissed the argument being made by some sections that triple talaq ban interferes with religious rights. “The Constitution is our civic religion. Since we accept that this is a secular nation, the role of citizenship has to be in accordance with the Constitution.” However, he agrees with the Bill, which will send the husband to jail for triple talaq pointing out that if there is a crime committed, punishment has to follow.
With less than hundred days to go before India goes to polls to elect a new government and a new prime minister, the stakes are higher than ever before. This election is unique in India’s history because it sees a division on religious lines that was never out there so openly ever before.
While the BJP and its hard line Hindutva agenda is clear to all, other parties like the Congress have been quick to drop their secular credentials in exchange for soft Hindutva credits. Most religious minorities view the 2019 elections as a test of how secular India really is today but perhaps no other community is as much on the edge as the Muslims.
Islam and its practices have been targeted for quite some time now and the Triple Talaq Bill, for many, is just the latest ruse to now drum support of the majority in India for the political class.
Kamla Bhasin, a well-known female activist and someone who writes extensively on gender issues said that many Muslims say that triple talaq is not Islamic but a cultural thing. “While many Muslims want the triple talaq to go, they also don’t want this kind of law which sends the husband to jail,” she said. Many feminist groups want the triple talaq to go but they are criticising the criminalization of the Muslim men in the Bill, she added.
Bhasin said that the problem with the Bill is that if the husband is sent to jail, who will take care of the woman? “The government is making the case that this is about gender equality.
But if one was to look at all the other actions of the government, like the statements made about women, the issue of Sabarimala temple which the government says is about tradition, it makes the government stand suspect. If Sabarimala is about tradition, so is triple talaq.” She said the Bill appears to be more of an action to make Islam seem lower than their own religion.
While the fate of the Bill is yet to be decided, the debate surrounding it has left no doubt as to where the BJP and the other parties stand on it. Issues of gender equality and religious freedom today are being used by all political parties with an eye on 2019 polls. And the Triple Talaq Bill is only one of these; many more seem to be on the anvil.
Simran Sodhi holds Masters Degree in International Relations from American University (AU), Washington DC. She has contributed to leading newspapers like The Indian Express, Mail Today, The Statesman and The Tribune and has reported from the US, Pakistan, Israel, Tokyo and Beijing. Since 2012, she has also been appearing as anchor and guest on All India Radio programs, mainly on issues of foreign affairs. Her book on the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, titled “Piercing the Heart, Untold stories of Mumbai 26/11” was published in 2009 and was featured amongst the bestsellers of the country.