The cocktail of instant talaq and ‘gau raksha’
The Bill on instant triple talaq raises fascinating questions for electoral arithmetic and political strategy. Is the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) going to gain a sizeable number of Muslim votes on account of this strategy? Will the Bill create an impetus for reform within the Muslim community? Has the BJP successfully been able to identify itself as a torchbearer of hard-Hindutva and expose the Congress stance of soft-Hindutva? To answer these questions we have to position the Bill in the context of the overall political and policy stances of this government.
The last three years have seen a significant deterioration in the political and economic conditions for Muslims. In terms of politics, Muslim representation in the 16th Lok Sabha hit an all-time low at 22. Muslim representation in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, where the community accounts for 20% of the population, is only 5.9%. The BJP has made it a habit of winning elections by promoting leaders known chiefly for their incendiary remarks against Muslims while pointedly not giving a ticket to any Muslim candidates.
On the economic front, although demonetisation was not aimed against any religious community, Muslims constitute a disproportionate share of the unorganized sector that was hard hit by the move. Further, the gau raksha movement has severely affected the livelihoods of cattle traders and abattoirs, which again consist of a disproportionate share of Muslims. The gau raksha movement is not only an attack on livelihoods but has also violated the rights of citizens, including Muslims, to access and eat buffalo meat and, often, even mutton. On the social front, the campaign on “love jihad” and ghar wapsi constitute instruments in the arsenal of the Hindu right to stir up sentiments and instigate violence against Muslims. In short, we are talking of a community that has reason to feel itself to be in a state of siege.
Now the government of the day enacts a Bill ostensibly aimed at improving the lot of Muslim women. The penal provisions of the bill include three years’ imprisonment and a clause allowing a suo motu complaint to be filed against a Muslim man. The possibility that this provision is used to settle scores, not just deliver justice is immense. Thus after successfully disempowering the community as a whole, the government is claiming to empower the women of the community, while at the same time setting up draconian measures against men.
Given the background of events, the Bill cannot merely be seen as a continuation of the BJP’s schemes for women like beti bachao beti padhao. It is an act initiated by a rampant political force over a successfully disempowered community, an act intended to further weaken the “other” and to establish moral superiority—despite the fact that India ranks 131 in the world in the gender development index, not for the faults of Muslim personal law alone.
With four state elections around the corner, the ideological positioning of the BJP and the Congress, as revealed by their stances on this Bill, becomes important. The Gujarat election showed that the Congress was well served by a strategy of soft Hindutva. One view is that by inserting highly objectionable penal provisions into the Bill, the BJP has adopted a hard Hindutva stand, and once again, been able to show the Congress as being soft on Muslims. Under this approach, the aim of the BJP would be to achieve a majority in the Rajya Sabha after the impending state elections and pass the Bill in its present form to sustain the differentiation with the Congress for the 2019 general election. Given the inherent contradictions in the present Bill, it is not clear whether the BJP will win the votes of a significant number of Muslim women through this move, although this may not matter to them.
However, the Bill has united the opposition as nothing else could. A matter of concern to the BJP could be that the Congress has successfully identified serious flaws in the Bill and is in a position to claim some of the credit in case a modified version is passed. This implies that the BJP would want to pass the Bill without Congress support. Even if it is willing to modify the Bill, it will do so only after it attains a majority in the Rajya Sabha. In either case the prospect of the Bill being passed in the forthcoming budget session is low.
The Muslim community is caught between a ruling party with little empathy for their core interests, and an ally that failed to undertake the important task of reform under its watch. The regressive tradition of instant talaq has no sanction in the Quran, which advocates a robust process of “triple talaq” that lasts several months. I do wonder why the Muslim community has been slow to adopt progressive practices toward women, although this is a criticism that could be extended to most communities in India. However, given the background of events, at the present time, it seems natural that clerics and members of the intelligentsia will hesitate to support reform, even if they are in favour of it in principle.
In the long term, the overall policy of the BJP, of which this Bill is but a part, appears to be worryingly divisive, and provides grist to the mill of extremists on all sides. This is not the recipe for sabka saath sabka vikaas that the nation needed. Economic development and political empowerment remain the best ways of inducing social reform. But for that gau raksha and ghar wapsi will have to wait.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.
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