THERE ARE TIMES when the newspaper headlines get it spot on. The passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019—better known as the Triple Talaq Bill—was one such occasion.
There are two ways in which the Government’s success can be measured.
The first, and arguably the less important achievement, lay in the Narendra Modi Government cobbling together a working majority in the Rajya Sabha. In the final count, the Bill was passed 99-84, a Government majority of 15. Since that more or less corresponded to the 117-75 vote against sending the amended Right to Information Bill to a Select Committee, it may be presumed the Government now has a working majority in the Rajya Sabha to complement its decisive majority in the Lower House.
To some extent the Rajya Sabha majority has been managed by chipping away at the opposition. Three MPs of the Telugu Desam Party joined the BJP, as did an INLD member from Haryana. Then, on the eve of the Triple Talaq Bill, Congress MP Sanjay Singh resigned from the party, causing a vacancy. Earlier, Neeraj Shekhar, the son of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar walked out of the Samajwadi Party and resigned his seat. In the by-elections, whenever they are held, the BJP will add two members to its tally.
However, the real victory was the result of deft floor management. In the Triple Talaq Bill, the Biju Janata Dal supported the Government. Two important Government allies—AIADMK and JD(U)—opposed the legislation. But rather than vote against the Bill, they, along with the BSP, PDP and a few smaller parties, simply abstained. I am not counting some other strategic abstentions from the Congress and NCP.
All in all, the BJP’s floor managers successfully gamed the system. Purists would argue this was quite needless. In essence, the Triple Talaq Bill, making its use for instant divorce a criminal offence, was an added extra to the Supreme Court outlawing the practice. At best it will serve as a
deterrent, although I dare say it could also become a symbol of orthodox Muslim resistance to tampering with religious practice. So why did the Modi Government persevere with this legislation? Remember, the passage of the Bill was successful only on the third attempt. On earlier occasions, it had stumbled at the Rajya Sabha stage.
The over-simplistic view is that the BJP was targeting Muslim women as possible supporters. This is partly true, but I seriously doubt if the returns will be commensurate with the effort expended on the exercise. Nor do I go along with the opposition claim that the Triple Talaq Bill was aimed at testing the waters for a Uniform Civil Code.
A Uniform Civil Code may be a great idea but preparations for it are not even at an elementary stage. In particular, no real thought has been given to how to reconcile India’s many customary laws—particularly in the Northeast and among some Adivasi communities—with contemporary values. Attempting to put Article 44 of the Constitution in operation at this point would create far more problems than bring political benefits.
The real rationale behind the Triple Talaq Bill, at least in my assessment, was to break a political block. Muslim marriages in India are governed by legislation that was passed by the Central Assembly (as it was then known) in 1939. The Act was in turn a derivative of legislation passed in 1937—popularly known as the Sharia Act—that sets out Muslim personal laws. What is interesting is that in the past eight decades these have remained unchanged. The only legislation, in 1987, was to negate the provision for alimony set out in the Supreme Court judgment.
The significance is awesome. Successive Governments in independent India have lacked the political courage to bring Muslim personal laws in tune with
contemporary values. Implicitly, the political class had conceded the argument that Muslim personal laws, at least in India, were sacrosanct. The Modi Government has punctured this belief and put Muslim personal laws on a par with the personal laws of other communities which are periodically modified keeping in mind gender justice. Although this is completely unstated, I believe that the Triple Talaq Bill is aimed at encouraging a
movement within the Muslim community for reforms in the Sharia Act.
The Triple Talaq Act has bred some resentment within the Muslim community, although the opposition was far less than anticipated. Will it also trigger some overdue reformist impulses? That is a trend well worth monitoring.