By Ghazala Wahab
3 March 2021
(Extract from the chapter Insecurities of Muslims in India, published with the permission of the author)
BORN A MUSLIM: SOME TRUTHS ABOUT ISLAM IN INDIA
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I first came across the term ‘minority appeasement’ while I was still in school in Agra. The local Hindi newspapers in the late 1980s were full of the phrase, ‘alpsankhyakon ka tushtikaran’. While the trigger was the Shah Bano case, the argument revolved around two issues—the hajj subsidy and the absence of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC).
The hajj subsidy, which started in 1954, was designed to appeal to Muslim sentiment. Since Islam makes hajj compulsory for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it, devout Muslims aspire to visit Mecca and Medina at least once in their lifetime. However, according to Islamic law, one can only perform hajj after one has fulfilled all worldly obligations—including the repaying of all debts and marrying off one’s daughters. The total cost of hajj has to be borne by the one undertaking it; there can be no charity here. If one accepts charity, then the sawaab or religious benefit of hajj will accrue to the charity-giver and not to the one undertaking the journey. Towards the end of his life, my grandfather wanted to perform the hajj once again. But since his health did not permit it, he sponsored another person’s visit to Arabia in the belief that the hajj would be listed in his account of good deeds.
As the majority of Muslims in India are poor and illiterate, and till a few decades ago the hajj involved an arduous sea journey, the Government of India, taking a leaf out of the Mughal emperors’ books, decided to facilitate the process. In any case, government intervention is required for several reasons. Hajj can only be performed during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. In 2018, over two million people performed hajj, of which 175,025 went from India. Every year, Saudi Arabia, which organizes the pilgrimage, decides the number it can accommodate for that one week in a year. Accordingly, a limit is fixed for all countries with Muslim populations. Based on the numbers allocated to Indian Muslims, the Haj Committee of India selects the potential pilgrims through a lottery from all the applications received. This entire process requires bureaucratic assistance from the government.
As long as the journey was made by sea, it was affordable for a greater number of people. Once it was replaced by air travel, fewer people could afford it, especially when, in the name of convenience, the government mandated that pilgrims could only travel on the state airlines, Air India. The ‘subsidy’ was paid not to the pilgrims but to Air India for the hajj flights. Hence, in a roundabout way, the government was servicing Air India’s debts in the name of the hajj subsidy. A few years ago, when other airlines were finally allowed to fly this route, Air India’s monopoly and arbitrary pricing ended. Air travel for hajj became affordable once again, which is why there were no protests from Muslims when the Narendra Modi government announced the end of the subsidy in January 2018.
The other measure that critics castigated as Muslim appeasement was the government’s acquiescence in the Muslim insistence for a personal law as opposed to the UCC. It’s true that Muslims have been the most vociferous opponents of the UCC, even though several other religious communities in India, including certain sections amongst the Hindus, have been opposed to it for reasons ranging from inheritance laws to divorce laws and so on. This is the reason that despite frequent discussion on this, even the current BJP government has not made any effort to bring in a UCC. Interestingly, when the Supreme Court asked the government to make a law for the enactment of a UCC, the law ministry passed the matter onto the Law Commission of India, which on 31 August 2018 submitted that a UCC is ‘neither necessary nor desirable at this stage’.
And that’s where the matter rests. Yet, frequently, someone or the other raises the bogey of Muslim appeasement. Stripped down to its bare bones, the problem is this: the Hindu Marriage Act of 1956, passed by the Nehru government, abolished polygamy amongst Hindus, but Muslim men are allowed four wives. Hence, the slogan ‘hum panch, hamare pachchees’ (we are five, we have twenty-five) that is frequently used in politics to demonize Muslims. Even if one were to accept the argument of Muslim appeasement because they are allowed to marry four times and divorce their wives by merely uttering ‘talaq’ three times, how exactly is this appeasement detrimental to other communities? It’s another matter that, despite this law, the incidence of polygamy amongst Muslims, in comparison with other religious communities in India, is amongst the lowest in the country.
Never mind the data, why would a Muslim man choose to bear the cost of keeping two or more wives when he can get rid of the ones that preceded them merely by uttering ‘talaq’ thrice, and not even pay compensation?
In any case, Indian Muslims are unnecessarily vilified for their insistence on a personal law that governs only aspects of marriage, succession, and inheritance. The truth is, across the world, including in the West, governments allow Muslims to govern their personal matters such as marriage and divorce under Shariah-inspired laws. The reason for this is simple. The scope of personal law is so limited that it does not impinge upon national life in any way. In fact, in a country like India, family courts like darul qazas (dealt with in detail in the chapter on women) take the burden off the overworked civil courts. But logic is often a casualty of propaganda.
In an interview to me, in July 2009, Arun Shourie, journalist, author, and former minister in the BJP’s Vajpayee government (1998–2003), calling the Shah Bano case a watershed moment in Indian history, said, ‘When the Rajiv Gandhi government reversed the court order on Shah Bano case, it was seen as the capitulation of the secular forces in the face of irrational religious ones.’ According to him, this drove the Hindus towards religious extremism in the 1980s.
In this narrative, Rajiv Gandhi having humoured the Muslim communalists by overturning the Supreme Court verdict, tried to then placate the Hindu communalists by ordering the unlocking of the gates of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The rise of the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid issue and Hindu communalism then was the direct consequence of Gandhi’s capitulation on the Shah Bano case.
But the chronology of events does not bear this out. The VHP had started the Ram Janmabhoomi programme, mobilizing Hindu support for reclaiming the mosque site, in April 1984. In September–October 1984, it took out a rath yatra (similar to what BJP president Lal Krishna Advani would do four years later) from Sitamarhi in Bihar to Ayodhya. Indira Gandhi’s assassination forced the VHP to suspend the movement. It was resumed in October 1985. This was also the time that the Muslim agitation against the Shah Bano verdict was at its peak. On 25 January 1986, a local lawyer, Umesh Chandra Pandey, appealed to the Faizabad court (Ayodhya is in Faizabad district) to allow Hindus to worship inside the Babri Masjid premises. ‘On 31 January 1986, Faizabad district judge K. M. Pandey ordered that the locks on the gates of the premises of the Babri Masjid be opened.’ The Muslim Women’s Bill was introduced in Parliament on 25 February 1986. This sequence of events shows that Muslim communalists were placated only after Hindus communalists had been accommodated!
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