By M D Nalapat
Muslim women will be doubly happy were polygamy to get abolished.
Since the British era, the obsession of the Ministry of Finance has been to slice away as big a share as it can get away with from the national cake, rather than working out rates that would best grow the cake. An example is the clumsy way in which GST has been conceived and implemented. Both the 28% and 18% rates should be abolished, as should the applicability of GST regulations to small-scale industries and enterprises. Now comes another hugely consequential legislative enactment—abolishing the inhuman practice of “instant triple talaq” that has been used to divorce Muslim women who are citizens of India. The triple talaq bill can indeed do with modifications, including inclusion of a new clause that would make the practice of multiple wives illegal prospectively, rather than be allowed to continue into the indefinite future. Should any political party in India vote against the abolition of polygamy, the women of India will not forget or forgive them. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad needs to press his colleagues for legislation that would abolish not just instant triple talaq, but polygamy. This practice is scripturally permitted to Muslims only on the condition that every wife be treated 100% equally. Except for unique personalities such as the Prophet himself, such a condition is impossible to fulfil. There will always be variations in spousal treatment, whether this be in terms of material necessities provided or the quantum of affection lavished on each wife. Given such a virtually impossible condition for taking more than a single wife, it is obvious that those intent on following the Word of God as revealed by Prophet Muhammad should not have more than a single spouse. The proposed bill should enforce monogamy, as is the case in numerous countries across the globe that have substantial Muslim populations, including in Europe and North America. In all these states, polygamy is banned, and so should it be in India.
In the name of protecting the rights of Muslims, what almost all political parties through their leaders are doing is to continue to empower the Wahhabi fringe within a community that is overall as modern and moderate as its Hindu counterparts. Across the country, Muslim women (save a few in thrall to patriarchy) have welcomed the move to make illegal instant triple talaq, and they will be doubly happy were polygamy to get abolished through the passage of a law in this regard. Those wishing to indulge in such a practice are at liberty to find employment and a new life in the diminishing number of countries that still permit polygamy, but they should not in future be allowed to embrace the practice in India. It is heartening that women in India, especially those born into the Muslim faith, have been vocal in welcoming the rolling back of the medievalism that has been left shamelessly undisturbed (and indeed coddled) by successive governments since 1947, following on the Congress Party’s failed efforts to woo religious fanatics in the minority community from 1919 onwards, rather than stand together with the moderate majority of Muslims. More recently, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s political fortunes began to fade once he tossed aside the views of his minister Arif Mohammad Khan in favour of Wahhabis in the minority community to get passed a retrograde bill concerning divorce for Muslim women. There are still those in the Hindu community who favour the practice of “sati”, the burning of widows at the pyre of a deceased husband. Should this be reason enough to bring back such a loathsome practice? There are still those in the Hindu community who believe that a woman should forever be under the thumb of a man, whether he be her father, her husband, or (later) a son. Those celebrating such practices and beliefs are acting contrary to the freedom-suffused and inclusive spirit of Sanatan Dharma. Recent efforts to force-feed specified diets, dress and lifestyles on the population are reminiscent of the ravages of the Saudi Muttawa, the religious police that has been finally been curbed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has repudiated the Wahhabism that has so crippled his country’s ability to adjust to the changed chemistry and needs of the 21st century. Those who are taking up the cause of battling Muslim fundamentalism must be similarly active against fundamentalists of other faiths as well, including their own, if they are to gain credibility as a force for beneficial change.
The people of India have finally outgrown the period when they would passively accept the diktats of the colonial system of governance still kept in existence by the political class. As for the Mamata Banerjees, they will meet the political fate of Sonia Gandhi if they pursue a policy of appeasement of the Wahhabi fringe within the minority community. Instead, such politicians should recognise the common interests that bind together the Hindu and Muslim communities and empower the moderates. This is especially important in Bengal, in a context where Wahhabism is growing in potency in Bangladesh despite Hasina Wajed’s efforts at curbing such a tendency. The danger of contagion is high, given the open border between India and Bangladesh, whose citizens have been flooding into Bengal and Assam, and from there to the rest of the country, for decades. The Congress Party under Rahul Gandhi needs to signal its support for the 21st century by calling for a legislative ban on polygamy. As for the provision for imprisonment in triple talaq cases, this should be made conditional on the wife, who alone should have the right to demand such a punishment.
This, of course, would in effect mean that her marriage was truly over. The right to enforce a jail term on the husband must vest with the aggrieved wife rather than with the police. In 1919, a fateful turn by the Congress Party in the matter of a revivalist movement for the Caliphate led to other acts of fundamentalist appeasement and a swelling of the ultimately successful demand for Partition. It is now 2018, and political parties in India need to do what is right for the many by ignoring the veto of the few. If they continue to pander to the fringe, India may enter through political miscalculations into another stability-destroying cycle of distance and discord between Hindus and Muslims. Isolating the fringe within all communities and engaging with and empowering the moderate, modern majority within each must be made the norm in politics.
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