The Indian government is doing everything it can to convince Indian Muslims that India is not the country for them. Led by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the government is also trying to hide these efforts from Indian Hindus. Through a series of carefully implemented changes, which drew much attention but little criticism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has succeeded in creating an environment in which most Indian Muslims live lives limited by fear, while Indian Hindus dismiss their concerns as paranoia.
It is in this environment of deceit and uncertainty that a bill banning the Muslim practice of “triple talaq” divorce was passed in December 2017 by the lower house of Indian parliament. At first glance, the bill seems like a necessary step that will elevate the position of Muslim women in Indian society and gave them some sense of security. But a closer look reveals that it is a poorly drafted piece of legislation that will be used to harass Muslim men and further paralyse the Muslim community.
What is triple talaq?
Triple talaq refers to the instant dissolution of a marriage that occurs when a Muslim man says the word “talaq” (Arabic for “divorce”) three times. It allows men to unilaterally and capriciously dissolve a marriage. Although triple talaq divorce is technically valid under Islamic law, it is frowned upon by Islamic scholars and is banned in twenty-two Muslim-majority countries. In fact, Muhammad is said to have discouraged the practice.
Why was it not banned in India until now?
Matters relating to marriage and divorce among Indian Muslims are governed by a special code to ensure that their religious freedom is not compromised. Consequently, Indian Muslim couples are not required to register their marriages with civil authorities. Triple talaq divorce has been at center of debate for many years: citizens have often agitated against this practice, yet no one has ever managed to find the right balance between protecting Muslims’ religious freedom and defending women from harassment and injustice. However, given India’s history of Hindu-Muslim tensions, legislators have tiptoed around making any major change, lest they end up isolating their voters.
What prompted legislation on triple talaq now?
In 2017, a group of Muslim women approached the Supreme Court of India. Their lives had been uprooted when their husbands instantaneously divorced them, and they sought redressal to their grievances: the social stigma that comes with divorce in a conservative society and the financial setback they had suffered, as in many Indian families, women are homemakers while men are the primary earners. A bench of Supreme Court judges asked the central government to intervene in such matters related to Islamic marriage and divorce. In December 2017, the lower house of the Indian Parliament passed a bill that criminalizes triple talaq.
What is the problem with the legislation on triple talaq?
It seems that Modi and his team have succeeded where their predecessors have failed: the BJP has decided to confront a matter that scared previous generations of legislators into acceptance of the status quo. Unfortunately, it is not for moral reasons that triple talaq has been criminalised, and Indian Muslims find themselves waiting in fear to see whether the bill will become law. They are afraid of further marginalization in a society where they already barely exist on the fringes.
The economic and social positions of Indian Muslims have never been enviable, and they have gotten much worse since Modi took office a little less than four years ago. There have been sixty-three lynchings of Muslims over the past eight years; an astonishing sixty-one of them have occurred since Modi became prime minister. Secular writers and journalists who have been critical of Hindu texts have been brutally murdered, with little progress being made in the investigation of these homicides. A group of university students who protested the extrajudicial execution of a terrorist were accused of sedition. One of these students, a Muslim man, was also subjected to suggestions that he himself was a terrorist from Pakistan. In fact, the campaign to make Pakistan, Muslim, and terrorist synonymous for the Indian population extends even further: a group of Muslim men, including teenagers, was arrested for celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in a cricket match while an actress was booked for sedition for saying that Pakistan is not hell. The leather industry, which has been the economic mainstay of many Muslim communities in India, has been paralyzed by a crackdown on killing cows, which are considered sacred by some Hindus.
Against this backdrop comes the vague and poorly drafted bill, which was passed after a hurried and inadequate discussion. It stipulates that any information on a husband trying to divorce his wife through triple talaq will be accepted by the police. Effectively, this means that if any person claims that a husband tried divorcing his wife through triple talaq, the husband can be arrested without a warrant. Consequently, the bill has led to fears that this legislation will further BJP’s anti-Muslim agenda, as it could be misused to put innocent Muslim men behind bars. Furthermore, the stated goal of the bill is to make sure that Muslim women and children are not rendered vulnerable through this instantaneous divorce. However, when the husband is imprisoned, his wife and children would be cut off from a stable source of income and suffer.
Even the Muslim women’s groups who had approached the Supreme Court of India regarding this practice did not want it to be declared unconstitutional; they rather sought equal rights in divorce proceedings. Ordinarily, such legislative shortcomings are chalked up to the disinterest and incompetencies of the legislators and the red tape that binds the process, two things that inhabitants of democracy have come to expect from their leaders. But this is no such case: it is an intentional step taken to oppress the Muslim community. The BJP relies on the support of Hindu extremists and Hindus who fear the tensions between India and Pakistan and find a convenient scapegoat in the Indian Muslims. Consequently, the party thrives when communal tensions are at their highest.
The fact that the highest office of the country has either actively or passively sought to handicap the Muslim community of India has emboldened many Hindu citizens openly to express unfounded anxiety and fear of Muslims and to discriminate against them. A dangerous wheel has been set into motion, and it remains to be seen how far it goes before India realizes its mistake.
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