By Dr. Tanvir Nasreen
I am writing this piece from Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim country, now evolved into a republic in Central Asia. I am here to attend a conference on ‘Islam in Modern Secular State’. Questions came pouring in as soon as I finished my presentation on the contemporary South Asian discourses on politics and Islam.
Why did I face these questions? Why are Indian Muslim women in the centre of discussion? Was it only because I mentioned these in my presentation?
Certainly not. There has been considerable worldwide media coverage on triple talaq and its ban by the Supreme Court of India. But the manner in which the matter was reported in the Western Press and presented to Western audiences is considerably different from the reality.
Unfortunately, there has not been a single measure of reform for Indian Muslim women during the last seventy years, when the self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ and ‘secular’ governments were in power. Thankfully, for all of us, the ten crore Muslim women in India, a first initiative at reform finally did happen when a so called ‘Hindu nationalist party’ is in power at Delhi! And what could be more unfortunate than the principal opposition party, Congress, and its de facto supremo, Rahul Gandhi, not uttering a single word on this historic verdict!
We, the Muslim women of India, were eagerly looking forward to at least an observation from the Congress scion, Rahul Gandhi! More so, because exactly 32 years ago, his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, had insistently pushed the most regressive ordinance, thereby successfully setting back the clock in the Indian Muslim women’s journey towards modernity and secularism. I am referring to the Shah Bano case and its consequences, when, Rajiv Gandhi and his government, in spite of the majority in Parliament, passed the ordinance on the maintenance of Muslim women after divorce. The historic judgment of the Supreme Court was rolled back by this Ordinance in 1987.
For the last 32 years, Muslim women have fought the toughest battles for their equal rights inside the courtroom, and out of it. The orthodox patriarchal adversaries were not easy to fight against. History needs to record that when Prime minister Narendra Modi repeatedly raised his voice supporting the rights of Muslim women as guaranteed by the Constitution, Rahul Gandhi, and even his mother, maintained a majestic silence on the issue. Surprisingly, two of his most trusted and senior lieutenants, two leading legal luminaries, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid – like Mir Jafar and Jagat Seth – joined hands with the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB)to completely betray the cause of Muslim women.
The AIMPLB, an NGO, claiming to be the sole mouthpiece for Muslims in India, is an orthodox patriarchal organisation that has systematically opposed any attempts at reform in the Muslim society during the last forty years.
Kapil Sibal, the maverick former UPA Minister for Human Resource Development and Telecommunications, denied all allegations against patriarchy and defended triple talaq in his own typical way. Triple talaq was a fourteen hundred year old custom, and therefore, deserved to be legitimately continued, Sibal blatantly argued. Sibal thought it was neither regressive, nor denied the Muslim women’s right to equality. It only reminded me how he had claimed that there was no revenue loss in the telecom auction even after the revelation of the CAG in this regard. After all the spirited arguments of his erudite and eloquent senior colleagues, what could Rahul Gandhi say in favour of the Supreme Court judgment, or for the ten crore Muslim women in India?
As I was explaining to my friends from Europe, the total number of Muslim women in India is more than the population of many European countries, and is, indeed, a numerical figure to reckon with. Perhaps PM Narendra Modi could comprehend the significance of this number and also that any agenda of inclusive development would be impossible to achieve with this section of the population being left behind.
Muslim women were being deprived of their Human Rights (Art16; 1) and their Constitutional Rights in the name of Minority Rights and protection of Personal Law. Ironically, this Constitution of India, had been presented in the Parliament by the great grandfather of Rahul Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The Constitution has a clear indication that the spirit of the Preamble shall prevail in case two or more articles of the Constitution are found to be in contradiction.
Like his father, Rahul Gandhi too, missed a great chance to gauge the aspirations and ambitions of Indian Muslim women. It is extremely unfortunate that he too continued to engage with the patriarchal forces, keeping an eye on what is commonly known as the ‘Muslim vote bank’. The Muslim vote bank, like the community itself, is not homogeneous.
The concern of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, for the suffering Muslim women in India, reminds me of the example of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, too, had taken up a difficult struggle with the agricultural South to liberate the United States from the institution of slavery.
Just as Lincoln tried to ensure Justice and Equal Rights for every citizen of the United States, the Indian Prime Minister pushed the agenda of equal rights for Muslim women. If the comparison appears to be too far-fetched to some, it has been during his tenure that Muslim women received two landmark judgments. Firstly, the doors of Dargah-e-Haji Ali were opened for women (considered to be too inauspicious to enter the shrine until then) by a landmark judgment of the Mumbai High Court in 2016. This was followed by the triple talaq verdict this year. Although the judiciary functions independently in India, we have to remember that the Central Government led by the Prime minister did submit separate affidavit in support of the cause in both cases. This support definitely strengthened the struggle of Muslim women against injustice and discrimination.
What other qualifications of progressivism and liberalism would a so-called ‘Hindu nationalist Party’ and its Prime minister require to establish his or his party’s credential as the next generation organization? The government stood strong in its support for Muslim women in their fight for equality of status and of opportunity, as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. I reminded the American scholars that it was the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which assumed a role of progressive and liberal leadership in the US during the 1860s. The Democrats had been essentially conservative during the Civil War. This brings us to the entire discourse of subjectivity regarding progressivism and liberalism. These cannot be monopolized by a particular group nor by a certain political party; time and space have an enormous impact on these ideologies. Political circumstances and the course of historical realities shape the sensibilities of people.
History has already recorded the respective roles of the BJP and the Congress in this momentous struggle of Muslim women. We are eagerly looking forward to the legislations.
(The author is Professor, Department of History and Professor-in-Charge of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India, where she is teaching for the last two decades. She has done her PhD on the identity of Muslim women from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She led the movement for the ban of triple talaq and has been crusading for the equal rights of Muslim women. She is a regular columnist in several Bangla newspapers and appears regularly on television as a commentator on contemporary issues)