A good lawyer doesn’t allow personal convictions to get in the way of a challenging brief is one of the valuable lessons we were taught in law school. It is possible that a similar learning drew Congress lawyer-MP Kapil Sibal to argue for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in the historic triple talaq case in the Supreme Court and declare that triple talaq is a matter of faith for 1,400 years for Muslims which could not be subject to principles of constitutional morality and equity. But by placing his argument in such stark terms Mr Sibal, who prides himself as a true Nehruvian secularist, may well have revived a festering sore that has hobbled secularists and the Congress party in particular for over three decades now.
Sibal’s words echo the troubling narrative that was pushed in 1985 during the infamous Shahbano case, one that first led to the Congress party being charged with the tag of ‘minority appeasement’. Then the plight of a Muslim woman seeking maintenance after divorce saw the Supreme Court step in to protect her, only for the Rajiv Gandhi government to overturn the apex court order under pressure from Muslim fundamentalist forces. That abject capitulation gave the BJP the opening it was so desperately seeking to build a secular versus pseudo-secular counter-narrative and create a momentum for a resurgent Hindutva politics that would ultimately result in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the eventual political rise of the sangh parivar.
2017 though is not 1985. The BJP is now the party in power, led by an all-powerful prime minister whose government is determinedly objecting to all forms of triple talaq. If for Rajiv Gandhi, the Shahbano case exposed his political naivete, for the Modi government the triple talaq issue has become another weapon in its ‘justice for all, appeasement to none’ war cry. On the other hand, reduced to a rump in parliament, the Congress cannot afford any ambivalence on the issue. In the 24 x 7 news age and with an endless social media whirl, any Congress attempt to run with the secular hare and hunt with the communal hound will be immediately exposed.
Moreover, it is reassuring to find that the protests against triple talaq have been primarily led by Muslims groups, especially women. That many Muslim women have come out openly on television to reveal their anguish suggests a remarkable courage that stems from a growing sense of empowerment. Which is why, unlike in the Shahbano case, where there weren’t enough protests from within Muslim civil society to challenge the orthodox elements, this time there is a noticeable difference. The Muslim Personal Law Board in particular is no longer seen as the sole spokesperson for a community; in fact, it has been exposed as a cabal of mostly male obscurantists and almost forced by sustained public pressure to dilute its opposition to abolishing triple talaq.
In a sense, this is then the appropriate moment for every right thinking secular liberal to reclaim the space that was vacated in the aftermath of the Shahbano controversy and strengthen the brave voices within the Muslim community who are speaking out against triple talaq. The BJP may well claim that it is standing by Muslim progressives but their stand is misleading. After all, isn’t this the same party which has been insisting that faith be placed above the law in the contentious Ram Janmabhoomi case? Truth is, for the brotherhood in saffron, triple talaq is another convenient stick to beat the Muslim community with and push the stereotype of a religion that is steeped in archaic practices (why don’t I see the sangh leadership denounce public figures who still attend mass child marriages?).
Which is why the real challenge for unapologetic secularists , as the Supreme Court verdict is awaited, is to pull the triple talaq debate out of the political slugfest and place it squarely in the domain of gender equality. Muslim women need freedom from personal law practices that are inherently arbitrary and unequal. That freedom must come from the constitution that gives primacy to equal citizenship, not from a political order which has only used religious issues to divide and rule.
Post-script: A number of people on social media have been questioning the silence of prominent Indian Muslims on the triple talaq issue. Yes, they should speak up, but may I also ask: how many ‘eminent’ Hindus have spoken out when murderous gau rakshak gangs threaten and kill in the name of religion? The ‘crime’ of silence cannot be one-sided.