By M D NALAPAT
Nehru’s diktat still holds sway that changes in Hindu personal laws are kosher, but changes in Muslim laws should be avoided in the name of ‘secularism’.
Modern competitive communalism did not begin in 1992 or 2014, but after the 1919 support of the Congress Party to the Ali brothers and their fanatic devotion to a dead cause, that of reviving the Turkish caliphate. Confining support to the radical fringe within the Muslim community is an error that is being repeated over and over in India, even to the present. Triple talaq, nikah halala and polygamy are clearly discriminatory to women, given that it would be close to impossible to find a human being on the planet who would have the capacity to treat entirely equally more than a single wife. It has become fashionable for some to label India “fascist” because its ruling party calls for a uniform civil code. However, they refuse to affix that label to the United States or the European Union, where laws do not permit more than a single spouse (in some countries, of whatever gender). Several parties object to the passage of legislation banning triple talaq, nikah halala and polygamy, as being “opposed to Muslim personal law”, while simultaneously asking for women of childbearing age to be permitted into the Sabarimala temple, overturning aspects of longstanding Hindu personal law. Nor do the “secularists” back the return of temples to civil society (as is the case with all other faiths) rather than remain with the state, or equalise across all communities participation in the education of the underprivileged through the Right to Education laws. Clearly, Jawaharlal Nehru’s diktat still holds sway, that changes in Hindu personal laws are kosher, but that changes in corresponding Muslim laws should be avoided in the name of “secularism”. Television talk-time and printers’ ink have been expended on perceived deviations from “secularism” in Gujarat since Narendra Modi became the Chief Minister of that state in 2001, but little about Jammu & Kashmir, a state where there is palpable discrimination against the state’s minorities (as also against moderate elements within the majority population of that border state). Far from erasing the toxic mindset that enabled Jinnah and Churchill to partition India on the insane ground that Hindus and Muslims formed “two nations”, the form of “secularism” followed since the Union Jack was banished across the subcontinent has kept the mischief of communal politics alive.
The words “Hindu” and “Muslim” have recently been reverberating across media outlets and in public discourse in our country with much greater frequency and vehemence than the appellation: Indian. For three years, the BJP blocked passage of the GST Bill while the UPA was in office, with the Congress repaying the gesture for the same period after the last Lok Sabha polls. Given that it will take 3-4 years for the wrinkles in such a major reform to get ironed out, it would have made sense for the BJP to have accepted the Congress Party’s 2014 suggestion that a flat 12% GST rate get fixed rather than the multiple rates that were finally decided upon, so that the measure got passed before the close of 2015. The 2019 elections would have taken place after (and not as now, before) the GST system began to work with the features and efficiency only trial and error can ensure. As for the Triple Talaq Bill, jailing a delinquent husband mandatorily makes much less sense than (a) leaving such a decision to the wife who has been the victim of the practice, and (b) that only if the husband did not make sufficient financial restitution for the spouse and her children for life. Should he resile from the obligations of (b) at any stage, only at that point should a prison term get enforced. This too only when the initiation of prosecution fails to make the husband (or ex-husband) resume fulfilment of his financial obligations to the complainant and her children. Prime Minister Modi needs to avoid the Sibal-Chidambaram path of regarding harsher and harsher penal provisions as a quick fix “solution” to problems, the way his Law Ministry is presently recommending with reference to the current law against molestation of children. The Sibal-Chidambaram tightening of rape law (and the introduction of laws against molestation of females that are easily susceptible to misuse by either former romantic or spousal partners or by policemen looking for bribes) has done little to reduce the incidence of rape and harassment of women in India. In this context, it is logically a stretch to entertain the claim that members of a faith nearing the 200 million mark within the country are in “imminent danger”, when even the tiny Parsi community in India feels no sense of threat. Skilfully created perceptions of threat and separateness are what facilitated an event that has most harmed the Muslim community in the subcontinent, the 1947 partition. The tiny proportion of Muslims who are Wahhabi seek to enforce their practices and mindsets across what is still a vibrant and moderate community, and seek to label as threats to all Muslims any fight-back against Wahhabi practices.
As for the Women’s Reservation Bill, this needs to get redrafted so as to expand the number of MPs by making a third of constituencies double-member. In such seats, the female candidate (or candidates, if both the first and second positions are held by women) getting the most number of votes should also get into Parliament, even if this number be much below that secured by the male candidate getting the highest number of votes in the contest. Seating in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha should follow the “seamless seat” system prevalent in the UK, besides doing away with half the exit corridors. Such alterations would permit the additional MPs to find seating within the RS and LS chambers. The Triple Talaq, Nikah Halala and Polygamy Abolition Bills should get passed after suitable amendments have been made, as should a suitably reworked Women’s Reservation Bill. Hopefully, a time will come when civil society has at least as big a role in the drafting of legislation as those who rule over them through the same laws and administrative practices brought into India during Queen Victoria’s time.