By Aishwarya P. Sharma
20 May, 2017
Muslim personal law has remained untouched for decades, primarily because the Congress, and most importantly, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru sought to placate the Maulanas and Ulema who argued against any interference in their personal law.
The entire nation awaits the outcome of a key issue that has divided the country into many parts. The Supreme Court has reserved its judgement after the final hearing on triple Talaq and reform of Muslim Personal Law. Triple Talaq, it has been argued, has contributed to the destitution and exploitation of women in the name of religion, an assumption which is entirely correct. It is fairly clear that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) is rattled at the thought of interference in a space they consider to be their exclusive right. Fearing interference on this issue would open the Pandora’s Box on other religious practices and customs; they have announced reform in the Nikahnama to keep the issue outside the purview of the state and courts. Keeping them out is the only way to own that space they have created for themselves, which is a ticket to their political and social dominance. However, the reform is too little and has come too late. This is bound to get difficult in the coming days. It raises some serious questions regarding the validity of customs and “dying practices” that have been around for decades, apart from the right of a secular state to interfere in the private space of an individual.
Muslim personal law has remained untouched for decades, primarily because the Congress, and most importantly, Pandit Nehru sought to placate the Maulanas and Ulema who argued against any interference in their personal law, in the name of secularism. This is not to say that the lack of reform in the law can be ascribed to a particular party or political outfit, as every successive government has skirted this politically charged issue.
The Janata government, of which the Bhartiya Jan Sangh (BJS) was an integral part, used the issue of the minority character of AMU, between 1977-79, for electoral gains, allegedly to swing the Muslim votes in its favour. AMU had become a playground for politics from the mid 1970s. Early in 1975, the Executive Council of AMU, at the instance of its member Muhammad Yunus constituted a committee called the Joint Consultative Committee, thereafter Khusro committee, representing persons from various walks of life and different regions, who came together to evolve a proposal for the amendment of the Act and the statutes. The basic recommendations of the Beg and the Khusro committees demanded a restoration of the autonomy of the University in 1965 and 1972. However, Janata Party leaders only paid lip service to AMU’s minority character. AMU and Muslim personal law became a part of Muslim identity in the atmosphere of partition’s violence after 1947 simply because it was encouraged by the establishment at the time. While AMU still continues to battle with its pre-partition legacy and allegations of corruption against the background of strikes, personal law has emerged as an arena of contestation between the state and Muslims once again.
Personal law is little understood by the common man, who views Muslims as a bigoted lot. It is seen as a hindrance to their emotional integration. It was a symbol of the failure to Indianise Muslims, who stayed back after partition, something that Balraj Madhok, president of BJS highlighted in his letter dated 1 August 1981 to Indira Gandhi, who was then the Prime Minister. Self-styled Maulanas have always wanted to keep the home and the hearth firmly within their control. Their desperation was all the more evident as a consequence of their declining political fortunes and control among the masses they enjoyed in the 1950s and until the late 1980s. For the uninitiated, triple Talaq in a single sitting is banned and considered haram in the Sharia and those practising it have clearly abused it in the name of religion—similar to the practice of polygamy, which has been abused by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to sanctify relationships out of wedlock.
There is no point in continuing with a law that has rendered many women homeless by its wrongful use in the name of religion. However, why politicise it? The media has certainly, despite claims to the contrary, been politicising the issue, as the hearing enters the second day in the Supreme Court. To assume that this the first time that the country is engaging with this issue, would ignore the thousands of voices over the years who have argued for reform in personal law. Triple Talaq is and will always be a political and emotive issue, more so, since the arrival of electoral politics made Muslims a coveted constituency that every political party sought to woo. The 1980s saw a surge in demands for reform in personal law related to Talaq and polygamy at a time when General Zia-ul-Haq had initiated a ruthless Islamisation programme in Pakistan, which clamped down on women’s rights, inheritance and their position as a citizen of the Pakistani state. Newspapers such as the Indian Express and the Times of India at the time highlighted the issue in Pakistan, between 1981 and 1983, as a part of a campaign urging the Indian state to take a moral high ground on the issue. Indira Gandhi and later her son Rajiv seemed more inclined to maintain status-quo and consequently lean more towards orthodoxy than reform.
Badruddin Tyabji, the former VC of Aligarh Muslim University back then, in a column in the Indian Express, expressed the view that “not aware of the splendid contribution that the founder of their faith or his successors made, Muslims in India as a whole at the best of times are neither sufficiently informed nor capable of arriving at a balanced judgement on issues affecting them or what impinges upon their religious beliefs and practices”. He quoted extensively from the Prophet’s life to exhort his co-religionists to reform with the changing times, stating that when the Prophet sent Muaz, one of his companions, as the Governor of Yemen, the Prophet asked “according to what shall thou judge, Muaz replied, according to the scriptures of god, and if thou findest naught therein; Muaz replied ‘according to the traditions of messenger of god’ and if thou findest naught therein asked Prophet, pat came the reply ‘then I shall interpret with my reason’.”
Today, to argue that reform in dated laws is interference, is simply an attempt to resist change, which threatens the foundation on which the politics of some self-interested Maulanas has been built. Nor can an altered practice meant to cheat women be upheld in the name of religion, especially when religion does not sanctify it. If it is time we go back to the texts and scriptures, then it can show us the way forward, especially for Muslims who have a desire to move beyond Fatwas, Masjid and Qaum.