It is unfortunate that a progressive legislation to protect the rights of Muslim women against the pernicious practice of ‘triple talaq’ or instant divorce has been stalled in the Rajya Sabha at the altar of political expediency. That in the forefront of the scuttling of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, in the House was a woman (Congress leader Sonia Gandhi) makes it doubly regrettable.
Clearly, the Opposition led by the Congress is taking advantage of the fact that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is not in a majority in the Upper House. The Bill had been passed in the Lok Sabha in January last where the BJP has a comfortable majority. Whether the party would now resort to an ordinance to bring the new provision into effect remains to be seen.
In any event, it would have to legislate within six months and clear the Rajya Sabha hurdle. Having brought about key changes in the Bill on suggestions of members the Bill should have sailed through, but the Congress and its allies were clearly looking for alibis to stall the Bill and they found one in the fact that very little time was available for debate after the Bill was tabled on the last day of the monsoon session.
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The Modi government indeed can be faulted for having waited until the last day of the session to introduce the Bill. By doing so, it has given the Opposition a handle to beat it with.
It is also pertinent to acknowledge that some of the key changes proposed by the members and accepted by the Government were worthy. In the modified version, the complaint against a man responsible for ‘triple talaq’ can be filed only by the woman or her family. The woman can also drop charges if her husband is open to a compromise. The possibility of bail has been brought in; a judge can decide whether to grant bail after hearing the wife.
As Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad acknowledged, earlier even neighbours could file complaints and the couple had no chance to compromise. To that extent, the modified Bill is an improvement on the original one.
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But having accommodated the critics, the Opposition should not have stood in the way of an otherwise necessary piece of legislation which was intended to reform a retrograde practice which militated against gender justice.
The cold reality is that the Congress and its anti-BJP allies were looking to appease its vote bank of Muslim men and were hopeful that Muslim women could be brought around through coercion and browbeating.
The BJP, on its part, has alienated the Muslim community by its standpoint and behaviour over decades and thought it had little to lose but could get a windfall of women’s votes in the upcoming general elections next year. A clever polarisation of Muslim women votes is what it was looking for.
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It would be foolhardy for the BJP to give up its attempt to push through the legislation. In principle, the BJP is indeed on strong and legitimate ground and it would be doing this section of the population a great service in defeating male chauvinism which is so deeply embedded in Muslim society.
Even when the law is finally enacted, there will be attempts to confine it to paper. In that, enlightened Muslim women and public-spirited NGOs, lawyers and public men would have to rise to the challenge and defeat the designs of their male oppressors and their political backers.
There cannot be any illusion that even when the Bill is passed, Muslim women will be emancipated. But the fight for gender justice has to go on relentlessly.
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