The Union cabinet has recommended a presidential ordinance – to which the president has given his assent – to end the regressive practice of triple talaq and make it a criminal offence. Prime minister Narendra Modi was keen on the step even as he called for justice for Muslim women and an end to instant divorce through triple talaq. The view from the ruling dispensation is that triple talaq continues even though the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While it has equated the step with the emancipation of Muslim women, this is evidently a complicated issue. A record of the progress of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 in Parliament will prove the point. While it was passed in the Lok Sabha, lack on consensus prevented it from being passed in the Rajya Sabha.
Union minister of law and justice and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said later that there was a “compelling necessity” and “overpowering urgency” to recommend the measure. However, he was careful to sidestep the religious aspect, perhaps aware that it would push the government straightaway into a dense political minefield. “It is purely an issue of gender justice, gender dignity and gender equality,” he said.
Triple talaq is a non-bailable offence and only a magistrate can provide some relief with police having no powers in this regard. In the reworked bill, the offence can lead to minimum imprisonment of three years. The moderation seems to be that police will act only on a complaint from the victim of such an offence, her parents or relatives. On August 22, 2017, the Supreme Court had given the government a 6-month window to come up with a law to end triple talaq – talaq-e-biddat, talaq-e-hasan and talaq-ehsan.
There is a deep political divide on the issue. Conservative Muslim opinion first opposed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017 and on Wednesday, the government’s decision to recommend a presidential ordinance on the ground that it interfered with Muslim personal law – an issue that governments at the Centre have had to deal with since independence. The Congress-led opposition could well have played into the hands of conservative Muslims in the expectation of minority support in coming polls. Meanwhile, those seeking reforms in Muslim practices have been emphatic in their opposition to triple talaq. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan has led a campaign to end triple talaq and nikah halala, a practice under which divorced Muslim women must consummate a second marriage in case they want to return to their first husbands.
The intent shown by the Bharatiya Janata Party to push for an end to triple talaq is believed to be the reason for their support from Muslim women. It would be naïve to imagine that the recommendation for a presidential ordinance did not carry a political message. The minister for law and justice and information technology said the Congress had put vote bank politics above justice. There is no denying that the triple talaq ordinance will take the BJP closer to Muslim women ahead of the elections to four states – Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, followed by the Lok Sabha polls.